Words: Chicken

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The Independent Online
Noel Flanagan, the musician who dressed up as a chicken to taunt the Labour Party, told reporters that he was not interested in politics, which was fair enough, since his act didn't have much to do with them either. Anyway it was all innocent fun and took us back to the school playground.

The chicken had already become an emblem of cowardice in the 17th century, but before that it had had a much better press. Being a defenceless creature, it was associated more with the tenderness of youth than with lack of courage. Couples liked to call their infants their chickens, and if they had none, it would be said that they had neither chick nor child. Macduff's lament for his murdered children ("What, all my pretty chickens?") must really have grabbed the groundlings.

There's no compassion for it now. It's a shame that the chicken's only relevance to youth has become a negative one, not at all sentimental or fond. "She's no chicken" - it makes you think of scrawny necks. For most people the word's only positive image is of something plucked, trussed and oven-ready. It's true that in Scotland a mother might call her daughter "hen", but I don't think this has anything to do with the bird. It's more likely a variant of "hinnie", a Scottish version of "honey".

"Chick" has done a bit better. (I believe chicken was once its plural, chick having come first.) At Easter some shops dress their windows with the fluffy little yellow bundles, for yellow is an Easter colour as well as the colour of cowardice. Young women have been called chicks, an American import, but they can never have taken it as a compliment - there's something unpleasantly chauvinistic about it.

Meanwhile, what can we say if we want to express a word of sympathy for an unhappy child, now that "Poor little chick" isn't quite right? Well, we could try "Poor little toad". I've always liked that one.