Q: Why do we call a cowardly person a “chicken”? And when did the usage first turn up? Also, what about “chicken-hearted” and “chicken-livered”?
A: The cowardly sense of the noun “chicken” ultimately comes from the use of “hen” for a fainthearted person, contrasted with “cock” (rooster) for a dominant person.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hen” in its timorous sense is from the York Mystery Plays, a series of 48 religious works that the OED dates at sometime before 1450.
We’ve expanded the citation, which uses the compound noun “hen-heart” for a coward: “Be pe deuyllis nese, ze ar doggydly diseasid / A! henne-harte! ill happe mot ȝou hente” (“By the devil’s nose, you’re accursed and diseased, / Ah, hen-heart, evil fate has taken hold of you”).
The adjective “hen-hearted” appeared in the early 16th century. The first OED citation is from a political poem that describes English courtiers during the reign of Henry VIII as timid cuckolds:
“They kepe them in theyr holdes. Lyke henherted cokoldes” (Why Come Ye Nat to Courte, a poem by John Skelton that Oxford dates at sometime before 1529).
In the early 17th century, the noun “hen” appeared by itself in the sense of “a cowardly, timid, or spineless person; (also) anyone who adopts a subservient role, often explicitly contrasted with cock,” according to the dictionary.
The earliest OED citation for both “hen” and “cock” in those contrasting senses is from More Knaues [Knaves] Yet? The Knaues of Spades and Diamonds, a satirical tract by Samuel Rowlands, printed around 1613:
“It saues thy head from many a bloudy knocke, / To play the Hen and let thy wife turne Cocke.”
This sharp contrast between rooster and hen may have helped popularize the figurative use of “chicken” when it showed up in its cowardly sense. Like “hen,” the fearful “chicken” originally appeared in a compound with “heart.” This is the first Oxford citation:
“Such Chicken-heartes (and yet great quarrellers).” From Blurt, Master-Constable (1602), an Elizabethan comedy that the dictionary attributes to Thomas Dekker, though some scholars consider Thomas Middleton the author.
“Chicken” in its fearful sense soon appeared by itself in this OED example from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, produced in 1611:
“Forthwith they flye Chickens, the way which they stopt [swooped] Eagles.” The passage describes fleeing soldiers as chickens who once swooped like eagles.
The adjective “chicken-hearted” showed up nearly two decades later in an English translation of a satirical poem that the Latin author Juvenal wrote in the second century AD:
“As red hayre [hair] on a man is a signe of trechery, what tis in a woman, let the sweet musique of rime inspire vs [us]; a soft hayre chicken-hearted; a harsh hayre churlish natur’d; a flaxen hayre foolish brain’d” (from a funeral oration in A Iustification [Justification] of a Strange Action of Nero, a 1629 translation by George Chapman).
The adjective “chicken-livered,” meaning cowardly or timid, appeared in the early 19th century in this OED citation:
“I am resolved, and they will find me no chicken livered fellow” (from the March 31, 1804, issue of The Corrector, a semi-weekly newspaper in New York City).
The dictionary notes that two similar adjectives with the same meaning, “pigeon-livered” and “pigeon-hearted,” showed up in the early 17th century:
- “But I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall / To make oppression bitter” (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written sometime around 1600).
- “I never saw such Pigeon-hearted people” (The Pilgrim, a comedy by John Fletcher, written sometime before his death in 1625).
The phrasal verb “chicken out” appeared in the 20th century. The first OED example is from a Utah newspaper:
“The Irish outfit was highly ballyhooed at the beginning of the football season, with the result that logical competition ‘chickened out’ ” (Salt Lake Telegram, Feb. 19, 1931).
You didn’t ask about the word “chicken” itself, but the noun meant a young chicken when it showed up in Old English as cicen, ciken, and so on.
The earliest OED example is from the West Saxon Gospels: “Swa seo henn hyre cicenu” (“As a hen gathers her chickens”) Matthew 23:37.