Anyone who refuses a double challenge risks being labeled a chicken. How dogs ended up in the defiance culture remains a bit of a mystery, but why cowards are called “chickens” is a bit clearer.
According to Oxford English Dictionarythe first written instance of the word chicken in the loose sense comes from William Shakespeare Cymbelinecirca 1616. “As soon as they fly, chickens,” he wrote, describing soldiers fleeing a battlefield.
But like Reports of grammarphobia, domestic poultry was associated with an absence of bravery long before the 17th century. A coin of around 1450 describe a coward like a “henne-harte” and the poet John Skelton assimilated from the spineless courtiers to the “hen-heart cuckolds” in his poem Why come Ye Nat to Courte about 1529. Hens may have seemed particularly timid because roosters were generally characterized as brave. If you were a leader, a fearless warrior, or just a commanding presence in the mid-16th century, someone might call you a “rooster(as a compliment). And when people started using the term chicken to mark submissive or cowardly people in the 1600s, they often juxtaposed it with rooster.
Take, for example, the final stanza of a late seventeenth-century ballad known as Taylor’s Lament:
“Ever since then she’s carried such a hold,
That I am forced to obey his laws.
She is the Rooster and I am the Hen,
This is my case, Oh! pity me then.
The sexist subtext here isn’t exactly hidden: female chickens, like human women, are characterized as moderate and timid, taking inspiration from their valiant and powerful male counterparts. Every time the script is flipped, pity is in order for the poor guy. Fortunately, the least gendered phrase (hens and roosters are all chickens) has gained over time, although it’s unclear why. Chicken meaning idiot– which may have been an offshoot of goose-as-idiot– began to appear in print around 1600. It therefore seems possible that the cowardly connotation became widespread partly because the term also functioned as a more general slur.
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