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"Talkative" birds

Posted by R. Berg on January 12, 2001

In Reply to: "A little bird told me" - a bit more posted by James Briggs on January 12, 2001

: : : I noticed that you don't list an origin for this phrase. There is a verse in the Bible - I believe in the Old Testament and perhaps in Psalms, Proverbs or Ecclesiates - which says something like be careful what you say because a bird may overhear it and carry it to the king. Perhaps that is its origin.

: : A LITTLE BIRD TOLD (WHISPERED TO) ME - "One scholar suggests that this familiar saying may have originated with the similar-sounding Dutch expression Er lif t'el baerd, which means 'I should betray another.' More likely the idea behind the phrase is in the noiseless flight of a bird, reinforced by a biblical passage from Eccles. 10:20: 'Curse not the kind, no not in thy thought.for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter'." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997). ".The earliest form of the saying was included in John Heywood's collection of proverbs . In 1583, Brian Melbancke wrote in 'Philotimus'" 'I had a little bird, that brought me newes of it.' In 1711, in 'Letter to Stella,' Jonathan Swift came close to the current version: 'I heard a little bird say so.'." From Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

: A little bird told me. This "little bird" implies a secret or private source of knowledge. Most authorities believe in a Biblical origin, found in Ecclesiastes 10:20 which includes "for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter".
: There is an alternative explanation involving King Solomon. All the birds of the air were summoned to him but the Lapwing did not appear. Later the Lapwing explained that he had been with the Queen of Sheba and that she had indicated that she intended to visit Solomon. The King began to make preparations for the visit; in the meanwhile the Lapwing flew to the Queen and told her that the King had a great desire to see her. As history records, such a meeting did take place, but the role of the Lapwing is less clear.

Birds really did carry messages in Biblical times. In the book "Ancient Inventions" (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), Peter James and Nick Thorpe say: "Most likely it was the Sumerians who discovered that a pigeon or dove will unerringly return to its nest . . . . The first actual records of their use as carrier birds come from Egypt. By the twelfth century B.C. pigeons were being used by the Egyptians to deliver military communications." Possibly (caution: pure speculation follows) the author of Ecclesiastes meant that someone might overhear you and report to the king by feathered air mail.