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Birds, Pride, Fear and Courage

Posted by Mapping Metaphor on the 3rd of July 2015

This post was written by Sarah Muller, one of our Mapping Metaphor research placement students.

David de Coninck - Een pauw, een papegaai, kalkoenen, hanen, konijnen en een cavia in een park

In English, we refer to a show-off as a peacock, someone who is easily frightened is called a chicken and individuals competing for dominance in a social situation will be said to be in a cock-fight. Given that the relationship between humans and birds as domesticated animals is as old as civilisations themselves, it is not surprising that these birds have influenced numerous areas of language.  Using data from the Mapping Metaphor project, this case study will provide an overview of the way in which the language related to pride, courage and fear draws on terminology from the category of birds (1E09).

Focusing on the metaphorical links between birds and pride, one may suggest that the (extravagant) physical appearance of the birds in question plays an important role. When a peacock’s colourful feathers are spread out, its appearance is quite impressive. A rooster can be distinguished from hens by its bright red comb and colourful feathers. Thus, individuals who are vain, proud or conceited are often referred to as being a “peacock”, “peachick”, or also “cockscomb”. In a similar light, the expression “to preen” draws on the image of birds tending their feathers, which gave rise to the figurative meaning of individuals who dedicate much effort to their appearance (OED online, preen, verb 2).

We find similarly strong links between the category of birds and courageous behaviour. Most of these metaphors are linked to the concept of courage with an underlying assumption that there is a willingness to engage in aggressive, potentially violent, behaviour. Even though people nowadays might consider lions or tigers to be more stereotypically courageous animals than birds, one needs to take into account that these metaphors entered our language system in the second half of the sixteenth century – a time when domesticated birds were part of every household. We refer to a man as a “cock” if he enjoys physical fights, and the expressions “cock fighting”  and “cock of the game” originate from the blood sport cockfighting, which was banned in the UK in the nineteenth century but it is still popular (and legal) in other parts of the world today. Another related expression is “that cock won’t fight” which, figuratively speaking, means that something will not happen. Part of the origins of these figurative uses may also lie in the fact that a rooster occupies a dominant position among a group of hens, and has tendency to fight other roosters to assert this dominance.

As indicated above, in the case of many birds, the males have a colourful and noticeable appearance whereas the females tend to be more inconspicuous in comparison. This distinction seems to have been taken over in the metaphorical expressions which link the category of birds to the categories of pride, courage and fear. Whereas peacocks and roosters symbolise pride and courage, based on their extravagant appearance and occasionally violent behaviour, the metaphorical links between birds and women are generally based on attributes linked to fear and weakness. We refer to someone as a “chicken” or a “pigeon” when they are, according to the OED, “as timorous or defenceless as a chicken” (OED online, chicken, noun, sense 3b).  It is interesting to note that the terms “hen” and “duck” are also often used as terms of endearment to refer to young women. “Turn tail” refers to cowardice when someone figuratively turns their back on something and runs away from a situation; similarly “white-feathered” also refers to cowardly behaviour. Lastly, expressions such as “goose-skin” and “chicken-flesh” draw on the flesh of these birds to describe the condition of human skin when affected by this physical symptom of fear.