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Why Are Cowards Called “Chickens”?

Butcher with meat cleaver trying to catch a chicken on the green field.Similar images:

Fact: no one likes to be called a chicken.

That insult can make anyone feel small and weak and a lot of folks out there use the word as a challenge to someone…and that can lead to some pretty hairy situations…

But why is the word “chicken” used to call someone out as a coward?

Well, it turns out we have to go back hundreds of years to get our answer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first time “chicken” was used in writing as the insult we know today is from none other than William Shakespeare himself who wrote “Forthwith they fly, Chickens,” in Cymbeline, circa 1616. The Bard used the word in this instance to describe soldiers fleeing a battlefield.

But according to the site Grammarphobia, other fowl were used to describe cowards much earlier. The people on that site say that a play from around 1450 described someone lacking bravery as a “henne-harte” and that a poet named John Skelton called them “hen-hearted cuckolds” in his 1529 poem Why Come Ye Nat to Courte.

The belief is that hens were used in this way because they were characterized as timid while roosters were portrayed as brave. Powerful leaders and other important men were sometimes referred to as “cocks” (in a good way) in the mid-16th century and hens were compared to them as weak.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Hens and roosters are both chickens, obviously, and for some reason, it’s unclear why the timidness of hens was eventually transferred over to chickens in general as an insult to the cowardly.

On top of that, “chicken” also became a substitute for the word “fool” in print for the first time around 1600, so the explanation might be that since it worked as a general insult as well as referring to someone as cowardly, the “chicken” term stuck.

Those poor chickens…