In Reply to: Yellow hammer posted by Graham Cambray on February 23, 2009 at 14:44:
: : : : : While growing up in the Midwest (central Illinois) I heard adults use the words "yellow hammer" to describe an unlikeable person, but I was (and still am) ignorant of the origin or exact meaning. I remember it was used in a context both economic - yellow hammers were poverty stricken - and implying social status - yellow hammers were "white trash" in the social pecking order - but it also could be used as a substitute for "idiot" or, in the Midwest flavor, a "dumb s h i t." I have no clue as to the reference of the color yellow, or the use of the tool imagery in "hammer."
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: : : : I'm in the UK, and here it's a fairly common bird (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowhammer). But having volunteered that information, I'm going to leave it to US experts to take this further. I do hope my contribution isn't a red herring. (GC)
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: : : Yellow hammer -- A name for the golden-winged woodpecker (Colaptes auratus). From the Mountain Range section of "Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 2000). Page 420. Ditto a second reference. Yellow hammer is a "northern flicker bird." "Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English" by Michael B. Montgomery and Joseph S. Hall (University of Tennessee Press, 2004). Page 663. A third reference does mention something that would apply to yellow hammer as a derogatory phrase. "yellowhammer -- This bird is named not for any hammer but from the earlier 'yellow-ham' (Old English geolu, 'yellow' plus 'hama' 'covering') in reference to its bright yellow markings. The European yellow bunting, as it is also called, was once believed to be cursed beause it fluttered about the Cross and was stained by Christ's blood, which colored its plumage and marked its eggs with red forever after. In times past children were encouraged to destroy its 'cursed eggs.'" "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997). Page 735.
: Just meddling, you understand - and not intending to start a second civil war - but at http://www.americanfolklore.net/folktales/al.html there is some suggestion that "yellow hammer" could be a nickname for an Alabaman. (GC)
Ah! Possibly because the Yellowhammer is the State Bird of Alabama. (http://www.archives.state.al.us/Emblems/St_bird.html). The artice says "Alabama has been known as the "Yellowhammer State" since the Civil War." and "When the Confederate Veterans in Alabama were organized they took pride in being referred to as the Yellowhammers." Well, you would, wouldn't you.
The "idiot" meaning seems to go back some. "One day a Professor, preparing to make a Grand Ascension, was sorely pestered by Spectators of the Yellow-Hammer Variety, who fell over the Stay-Ropes or crowded up close to the Balloon to ask Fool Questions." is from 1899 (http://www.archive.org/stream/fablesinslang00adeg/fablesinslang00adeg_djvu.txt). (GC)