The Origin of Common Chicken Phrases

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

You may think that if you do something bad you can get away with it, but eventually the chickens will come home to roost; and you’ll have to face the consequences of your actions. It’s natural behavior for chickens to venture throughout their surroundings during the day, but at night they always come back to the hen house to roost. In this case, the bad deeds are compared to the chickens; the consequences will always come back.

Strutting Like a Rooster

The dominant rooster in a group of chickens exhibits a very commanding presence by crowing and posturing. If someone is proud and self-confident and shows it in their body language, they are described as “strutting like a rooster”.

All Cooped Up

When it seems like you’ve been spending too much time inside because of illness or bad weather, you may feel like you’ve been “all cooped up” and be anxious or fidgety. Chickens exhibit similar behavior when they don’t get a chance to get out of the chicken coop to stretch their wings.

Scratching Out a Living

An observer of chicken behavior will readily see that they spend most of their waking hours energetically scratching in the earth for seemingly meager bits of food. A person who is working hard but just getting by exhibits similar behavior as they “scratch out a living”.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

Get prepared! Get organized! The meaning of this common phrase comes from the way ducklings travel behind their mother. Each duckling swims in a straight line behind the one in front of it.

Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch

Don’t assume you’ll get exactly what you want until you actually have it. In an Aesop fable, Aesop describes a woman who is taking eggs to market. The woman adds up how much money she will make from the sales. As she does this, the basket of eggs falls from her grasp and all of her eggs get smashed. The woman figuratively “counted her chickens before they hatched.”

Mad as a Wet Hen

Being mad as a wet hen is being really aggravated. This phrase comes from the practice known as “breaking” a hen to get her to start laying again after she has become broody. This ill-conceived practice involved dunking her into a bucket of water a few times until she became irritated and scrambled around the pen. After dunking, she would reluctantly go back to laying although she’d be “mad as a wet hen”.


Hens can be persistent when establishing their rank. If they know they are higher than another chicken in the pecking order, they aren’t afraid to let other chickens know by pecking at them. This is how the phrase “hen-pecked” originated. This phrase is most frequently applied to a situation when the husband is dominated by his spouse. In that case he is “hen-pecked.”

Egg on Your Face

If you were embarrassed that you didn’t know the meaning of this phrase, then you would have egg on your face; you would have looked foolish. This phrase originates from well-mannered people leaving the dinner table with food on their faces. The meaning may also have come from the days of regional theater when the audience would throw eggs (and other food) at bad actors.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

If a basket full of eggs is dropped, chances are that most of those eggs will be cracked and broken. If all your eggs were in that basket, you would have lost everything. This phrase is a cautionary statement meaning to give yourself options and not risk everything hoping for one outcome in a situation.

A Chicken in Every Pot

Enough food for every family is the meaning of this common phrase. It came into use when President Hoover (1929-1933) publicly promised a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot during the Great Depression. After Hoover’s famous speech, this phrase was frequently used to indicate general prosperity.

Take Under One’s Wing

This phrase means to nurture and mentor the way a mother hen protects her chicks by covering them with her wing.

Reprinted from  2006
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