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Posted by Smokey Stover on May 17, 2004

In Reply to: Roosting posted by ESC on May 17, 2004

: : Greetings all,

: : I'm back from a week in the countryside where I bought fresh eggs and two poultry questions came up in conversation.

: : The first is whether phrase is 'like walking on eggs' or 'like 'walking on egg shells'. From a logical stand point, I think you could argue that either gets the point across, but having been wrong before (you've got another THINK coming), I'd like to know which it is.

: : The other is about the 'chickens coming home to roost.' (I should have asked the Menonite chicken lady, but didn't think of it). I'm wondering what chicken behavior is the basis of this expression. Do chickens habitually go awol, then reappear to roost? This would imply that the expression refers to a sort of inevitability. I have always understood it as implying that there is something necessarily negative about having them come home to roost. Is that the case in chicken farming? Does the return of ne'r do well chickens cause problems?

: : Though these aren't probably the most burning questions ever to hit Phrase Finder, I'm sincerely curious.

: : Thanks

: : Countrified Camel

: I think it's walking on eggs. But I'll check.

: I can testify from first-hand knowledge about chickens. Free range chickens come home at night to roost in the henhouse. Birds in the wild roost in trees.

: My husband, a city boy, asked me how we got the chickens in the henhouse. They just come in on their own.

: THE CHICKENS HAVE COME HOME TO ROOST -- Chickens scratch around in the barnyard, in the fields and woods during the day. But at night they come home to the hen-house to roost. This saying is comparing a person's evil or foolish deeds to chickens. If a person does wrong, the "payback" might not be immediate. But at some point, at the end of the day, those "chickens" will come home to roost. "One has to face the consequences of one's past actions. In English, the proverb goes back to Chaucer's 'Parson's Tale' (c 1390). It was also know to Terence (about 190-159 B.C.) First attested in the United States in the 'Life of Jefferson S. Batkins' . The proverb is found in varying forms: Curses, like chickens, come home to roost; Sooner or later chickens, come home to roost..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

: This source has a later date for the phrase origin. "Malcolm X stirred up a hornet's nest when he said this about John F. Kennedy after the (U.S.) president was assassinated, possibly alluding to the alleged C.I.A. attempts on Fidel Castro's life. But the saying is an old one, dating back to at least 1810 in the form of 'Curses are like young chickens; they always come home to roost,' which appears to have been the invention of English poet laureate Robert Southey as the motto of his poem 'The Curse of Kehama.' The idea, of course, is that every curse or evil act returns to its originator as chickens return to their roost at night." From "The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

Walking on eggs is what I've always heard, and means, of course, being extra-careful, conversationally as well as in other behavior. As for coming home to roost, many birds behave like chickens, returning to the same roost for several nights in a row, although they are much more likely to change roosts than chickens are. ESC used the expression "free range chickens." What she meant, naturally, was actually free range chickens. In USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) parlance, "free range chickens" can be chickens living in an overcrowded chicken factory in which the small door to the outside is opened for about ten minutes or so each day, and a handful of chickens may actually get to scatch about on a barren walkway outside the coop for a few minutes. I know I'm wasting my breath, and that Phrase Finders regulars are too sophisticated to think that the U.S.D.A. has ever told the truth about anything since 1953. SS