For the Birds: An Idiomatic, Linguistic Expedition

by Laura Jeliazkov | 4/4/18 2:15am

Idioms are enigmatic ways of describing the chaos that is the world around us. Something in their endurance makes them comforting. They are reliable. They are a call for cohesiveness; they deconstruct what is complex and rebuild it as simple.

The funny thing about the latter is that this requires simple concepts — and so, it is true, most idioms that we use today hark back to a simpler past. They invoke the life of a typical farmer, the era of pastoralism, the plants and the animals and the good old earth. Think of “looking for a needle in a haystack” or “the elephant in the room.” These examples are not quite applicable to modern life. Most Dartmouth students are not, I imagine literally “reaping what they sow.” They are not out, for the most part, “making hay while the sun shines.” No one “hits the sack” when they go to bed. Nothing is worth “a dime a dozen” anymore. We aren’t “jumping on any bandwagons.” Though the meanings are still known, the origins are obscure. Time has moved past the glory days of these sayings.

Birds, however, remain overhead. They fly along with the English language tucked under their wings, their various qualities still reliable reflections of our everyday snide remarks, wise proclamations and shrugging concessions. It seems more timeless than the rest.

This animal pervades the great collection of idioms. It is a rather impressive presence. Waterfowl or barnyard, grown predator or un-hatched eggs — they all come in handy, here or there. You would have an albatross around your neck if you did not know the best of these bird idioms.

In his 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes of a sailor who unnecessarily shoots a harmless albatross. An albatross, should you not know, is a very large oceanic bird that lives in a wide range around the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific. Its wingspan can surpass 10 feet. Coleridge writes of the carcass being hung around the sailor’s neck as punishment. Quite the encumbrance. Today “an albatross around the neck,” suggests a burden of guilt that may be holding one back.

With that darn albatross around your neck, you certainly would not be happy as a lark. Though, to be clear, the song that the lark sings is not as cheerful and carefree as is often thought. It is, in fact, the call of the male when he is trying to establish his territory and attract mates. I suppose though, that “lustful” or “territorial as a lark” are not quite as readily understood.

You may be as mad as a wet hen to hear of this scientific inaccuracy. You might jump up from your seat and run, as the crow flies, like a bat out of hell from where you were sitting to the nearest ornithological research center. You would reach that ornithological research center desk and ask the researcher on duty, “Excuse, me, miss, but why does the lark sing?” To which she would reply, “Why, because the male is trying to establish his territory; he is trying to attract mates.” And you would scream and shout and gnash your teeth in frustration, until you are hoarse as a crow. “But why does this bother you so?” the ornithologist on duty would inquire. “After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. On another note, why is there an albatross hanging around your neck?”

The librarian would be right to question your fit of pique. Many idioms are, in fact, allusions to lines from historic works of literature. They come from writers — those who value fanciful rhetoric and memorable prose — not to scientists. Regardless of their inaccuracies, these phrases have stuck.

Some stem from more humorous origins, such as the story “Can You Eat Crow,” published on the fourth page of the Nov. 5 Saturday Evening Post in 1850. “Yes, I kin eat crow,” says old Isaac. “I kin eat crow; but I’ll be darned if I hanker after it.” And, ever thereafter, eating crow has equated to the admission of error — a similarly distasteful experience. The author may have been a silly goose with this one, but there remains some truth to it. Other idioms originated as wordings of self-evident truths, such as William Turner’s line, in his “The Rescuing of Romish Fox,” in 1545: “Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.” One does not have to be wise as an owl to figure out this one.

Thus enlightened, you would walk back to where you had been sitting, more in fine feather, satisfied with the explanation of the ornithologist on duty. No use going any further on a wild goose chase for a better answer. No use dwelling on the lark and its song. There are, you would tell yourself, other idioms to be investigated, other questions to be asked, other unjust inaccuracies to accuse. One shouldn’t put all one’s eggs in one basket. And so, you would decide, then and there, still walking, that you should leave the nest. Time to get all your ducks in a row. Time to strike out. Time to get a bird’s-eye view of the vista of questions to be answered. Maybe even time to learn about the birds and the bees.

If none of that confused you, I would like only to share a few great bird idioms of foreign tongue.

If, say, Shakespeare were to admit in Portuguese the fault of calling another’s work his own when he really had not written it himself, he would have been said to be “pagar o pato,” or “paying the piper,” translated literally to paying the duck. Say you continued to conduct an investigation into this and his idioms in Thailand, with the ornithologist on duty. In the process, the two of you became very close. You might then say: “The hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs,” meaning that the two of you know each other’s secrets. Or if perhaps, fittingly, you believe that all I am saying is nonsense, you could say in Latvian that I must be “blowing little ducks,” because I would be lying to you.

To which I would reply in Croatian, “Muda labudova” — balls of a swan. Impossible.