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Yellow hammer

Posted by Graham Cambray on February 23, 2009 at 18:35

In Reply to: Yellow hammer posted by ESC on February 23, 2009 at 17:10:

: : : : : : : 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 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.

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: : : Just meddling, you understand - and not intending to start a second civil war - but at"yellow hammer" could be a nickname for an Alabaman. (GC)

: : Ah! Possibly because the Yellowhammer is the State Bird of Alabama. ( 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 ( (GC)

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: Yellowhammer -- A nickname for a Confederate soldier from Alabama. Alabamians sometimes wore uniforms made with a homemade dye of a yellowish hue. Yellowhammer is the name of a familiar yellow-colored bird. From "Civil War Wordbook including Sayings, Phrases & Expletives" by Darryl Lyman (Combined Books, Conshohocken, Pa., 1994. Page 186.


The Alabaman theory is clearly appealing, but I've come back to this over a cup of coffee, and this time looked on this side of the Atlantic. I thought the search terms Yellowhammer and Dumb s h i t would be pushing my luck, so I tried Yellowhammer and Fool. I got one reference from around 1620, and one from around 1820. Both appear to connect the yellowhammer with fools (although you have to be a bit careful when this is what you actively search for). I regret I don't have the time (now, anyway) to follow this up properly, but this is what I found. See what you make of this:

Hengist, King of Kent, or The Mayor of Quinborough is a Jacobean stag e play by Thomas Middleton, first published in 1661. The date of authorship of the play is uncertain, though it is usually dated to c. 1615-20. At one point it has:
SIMON: Faith, and I thank your bounty and not your wisdom; you are not troubled greatly with wit neither it seems. [Aside] Now by this light, a nest of yellowhammers! And in the Notes section (at a glossary entry, helping to decipher the language of the day, has: "yellowhammers: 1) a species of bunting, 2) slang for goldsmiths, 3) fools."

About 200 years later, we have: "The entertaining history of Tommy Gingerbread : a little boy, who lived upon learning" [between 1799 and 1839?] Printed in London, possibly with Oliver Goldsmith as one of the authors (
"... you are like my Yellow Hammer, Mr. Y, young and silly, but you may have more wit when you grow in Years."

I offer these up for what they're worth. There are no clues as to why the yellowhammer should be thought especially stupid - unless perhaps it is because it spend so much of its time sitting on a branch singing.