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On chicks and chickens

Q: In a book about exotic chickens, I read that linguistic purists say “chicken” is plural for “chick,” akin to “children” and “child” or “oxen” and “ox.” What say you?

A: That book is wrong. The word “chicken” is singular and has been since Old English. As we’ll explain, the “-en” in “chicken” was originally a diminutive, not a plural ending.

Only in rural dialects, mostly in the 19th century in the southwest of England, has “chicken” ever been used as a plural for “chick.”

We found this explanation in an 1895 grammar book: “Chicken is not a plural word, though it is used as such in country districts” (from English Grammar for Beginners, by Alfred S. West).

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes this regional definition: “Chicken, in Mid-Sussex used as the plural of chick” (from William Douglas Parish’s A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Collection of Provincialisms, 1875).

In fact “chicken” dates from around 950 and perhaps as early as 700. But “chick” didn’t appear in writing until 1320, as an abbreviation for “chicken.”

“Chicken” (spelled cicen, ciken, and ciccen in Old English) is similar to words in other Germanic languages.

Chicken is a widespread Germanic word,” John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED notes versions in such Germanic languages as Dutch (kieken, kuiken), German (küchlein), Old Norse (kjúklingr), Swedish (kjukling), and Danish (kylling).

The ultimate source of these words, etymologists believe, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as kiukinan (or kiukinam).

This ancient word was “imitative, like Old English cocc, of the sound of the bird,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The ancient kiukinan was formed, Ayto says, by adding a diminutive to the root keuk-. And some etymologists, according to the OED, suggest that this root was a form of kuk-, the source of  “cock.”

“If that is so,” Ayto comments, “a chicken would amount etymologically to a ‘little cock’ (and historically the term has been applied to young fowl, although nowadays it tends to be the general word, regardless of age).”

The diminutive notion makes sense, considering that the earliest meaning of “chicken” in the OED is “the young of the domestic fowl.”

This sense of the word was first recorded in the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that the OED dates from around 950 (though some scholars trace it to as early as circa 700). 

Here’s a relatively reader-friendly 1526 citation: “He … cherissheth vs, as the egle her byrdes: the broode henne her cheykyns” (from William Bonde’s treatise The Pylgrimage of Perfection).

In the early 19th century, “chicken” came to mean “a domestic fowl of any age,” the OED says, although the abbreviation “chick” kept its older meaning: a young bird.

However, “chicken” has retained its youthful associations in some senses.

Since the early 18th century, according to the OED,  it’s been used in writing to mean “a youthful person: one young and inexperienced.” Thus “no chicken,” the dictionary says, can mean “no longer young.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator in 1711: “You ought to consider you are now past a Chicken; this Humour, which was well enough in a Girl, is insufferable in one of your Motherly Character.”

This later citation shows how “no chicken” was (and sometimes still is) used: “He must have been well forward in years—or at all events, as they say, no chicken” (from Edward Walford’s Tales of Our Great Families, 1877).

In case you’re wondering, “spring chicken” referred to a young fowl when the phrase first appeared in the late 18th century.

A “spring chicken,” the OED says, simply meant “a small chicken (esp. a roasting bird)” or more specifically “one aged between eleven and fourteen weeks.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used literally is from a 1770 entry in the diary of an English clergyman, James Woodforde: “We had for dinner … three nice Spring Chicken rosted.”

The figurative use of “spring chicken” to mean a young person—and of “no spring chicken” for someone not so young—was an American invention, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1910 issue of the National Police Gazette: “She wasn’t a Spring chicken, by any means, yet she wasn’t old.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples, and they aren’t all American. The first two are from boys’ adventure novels written by a Scot and published in London:

“I’m going on for fifty. That ain’t a spring chicken” (from Wild Life in the Land of the Giants, by Gordon Stables, 1888).

“And you wouldn’t be wrong in calling her ‘old’ either. My mither’s no’ a spring chicken, but—she’s a marvel. Ay, mither’s a marvel” (from Our Home in the Silver West, by Gordon Stables, 1891).

“He ain’t no spring chicken, Bert ain’t” (from A Little Norsk, a novel by the American writer Hamlin Garland, 1892).

“I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world and the awful abysses of human degradation” (from “The Pen,” a short story of prison life by Jack London, Cosmopolitan, 1907).

Finally, we should mention that the slang use of “chick” for a girl or young woman showed up in the US in the early 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry: He didn’t want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick.”

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