Phrases to Crow About

crow's feet, originally uploaded by formica.
There are many a phrase incorporating the word "crow". I am a language nerd, and true to form, I am always curious about the etymology of phrases or words. Crow terms are no exception. So I set out to learn a bit more about a few of the more common crow related phrases. When you hear someone refer to "Crow's Feet" they are referring to the deep lines in the skin around the eyes which comes naturally with aging. This term dates back to late in the 14th century but I couldn't find an actual origin. Pity! To 'eat crow' means to take back what you said, to eat your own words or your pride, to admit you were wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary1 postulates that this phrase is 'based on the notion that the bird is edible when boiled but hardly agreeable'. This phrase was first used in American English in 1851 but is 'said to date to War of 1812 (Walter Etecroue turns up 1361 in the Calendar of Letter Books of the City of London). 'As the crow flies' is a term indicating direction traveling the most direct route or in a straight line. This phrase dates back to 1800.23 Another crow related term not as commonly used is to 'have a crow to pick ' with someone. It means you have an issue with something they did and want to discuss it. One is upset with another person and wants to let them know. This term dates back to 1659, where it is found in Howell's Proverbs.4 Each phrase I've crowed about above is interesting in its etymology and worth researching yourself. Go ahead, you'll see! And if you find another term you would like to know more about or if you happen to know the etymology of another corvid-related phrase or word and you want to share, contact me below.

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  1. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=c&p=65 []
  2. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=c&p=65 []
  3. Barnhart, Robert K. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print. []
  4. Dictionary of phrase and fable: giving the derivation source, or origin of common phrases, allusions, and words that have a tale to tell by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer []

Rooks, Easter Lore and More

Like many in the corvid family Rooks are attached to many legends, myths, lore and superstitions. In Shropshire, it was believed that rooks never carried sticks to their nests on Sundays or Ascension Day, but simply sat quietly on trees and did not work. It was also believed to be futile to wear new clothes on Easter because the rooks would fly above and poop on them. Quite the opposite was said to be true as well. Some believed if you were hit by bird poop it was because you did not wear new or nice enough clothes on Easter. It was the Rook that was believed to make the decision if your Easter attire was nice enough. And it was the Rook who would carry out the punishment as well. It was a dirty job but somebody had to keep those English people well dressed on Easter. Rooks deserting a rookery were (and in some places still are) also thought to be an indication of a death coming. They were also looked to for predicting weather conditions for many. Such was the case in Devon, England where it was assumed that should the Rooks stay in the vicinity of their nests in the middle of the day, or return to the rookery early, then rain would follow, but if they flew far away, then fine weather would follow instead. And in Yorkshire, the saying went that if the rooks congreated on dead branches of trees, rain wuold come before nightfall, but if they perched on live branches it would be fine and dry.1 The rook is a predatory bird, cunning and intelligent, it will do most anything to survive. This is true for most corvids. But because of its sneaky nature it has gotten a reputation. The root of its name "rook" means 'to rook' or cheat someone. The distrust for rooks has long since held true in many places. In 19th century London a criminal ladened slums in the East End were referred to as a 'rookery'. This was indicative of the rook's sneaky nature but also a comment on the way they build their nests very close together---crowding in---similar to the slums. The name Rook is descendant of the Latin word frugilegus which means acquisitive. Fitting for the bird as Rooks often like to take objects including twigs and other nesting materials from other nests.2
  1. Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. []
  2. Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. []

Are the words Ravenous and Raven related?

Simply, no. But... One could easily imagine the word ravenous, meaning 'voracious, very hungry', originating from the word raven. Particularly, if you have ever watched raven nestlings eat. They need to eat every couple of hours and not just snacks either. Bernd Heinrich in the Mind of the Raven gives us a snippet of exactly how much these young birds can consume. Here is a sample 4 day diet for (6) five-week old nestlings he was caring for: Day One: One woodchuck and one snowshoe hare (roadkills that [he] froze and then chopped up---skin, bones, guts, and all---into bite-sized chunks and thawed before feeding). Day Two: Three red squirrels, one chipmunk, six frogs, eight chicken eggs (crunched up shells and all). Day Three: Two gray squirrels, five frogs, six eggs, six mice. Day Four: One hindquarter of a Holstein calf. Picture this food in relation to these birds---raven fledglings---around half a foot long. THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD for their size. However, the correlation between the word ravenous and raven is simply happenstance. While ravens do happen to be very hungry, the word raven or 'ravin' is of Germanic descent appearing around 800 AD. The raven’s name comes from the Germanic root 'khraben' which is thought to have arisen as an imitation of the harsh, grating call of the raven itself.1 On the other hand the word ravenous is of Latin descent originally.2 This can be a bit confusing so let me try to keep the lifeline of this word simplified.
  • ‘Ravenous’ is derived from the Old French word ‘ravineux’ (original meaning: 'violent rush, robbery').
  • ‘Ravineux’ is derived from the Old French word ‘raviner’.
  • ‘Raviner’ is derived from the Latin word ‘rapinare’.
  • ‘Rapinare’ is derived from ‘rapina’ (original meaning: robbery, plunder, booty).
  • ‘Rapina’ is derived from the Classical Latin word ‘rapere’ (original meaning: drag off; snatch; destroy).
  • ‘Rapere’ is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root I ‘*rep-‘
The verb form of ravenous is “to raven”. It is quite proper to use the word in its verb form or in its present participle form ‘ravening’ which means “to search for or consume food voraciously.” Can any of you come up with some good uses of this word? If so, I will post them. =) So...no, ravenous and raven are not related etymologically speaking but we can still appreciate the correlation, can't we? While raven, in the bird sense, is as common as the bird---it seems the word ravenous in any of its forms is simply disappearing in everyday conversation. Tsk, tsk, tsk… We are fast losing so many wonderful words---forgotten---replaced with the ever-so-annoying text-speak.
  1. http://www.word-detective.com/021804.html []
  2. http://www.myetymology.com/english/ravenous.html []