We all know what a bird is right?
It’s an English bloke’s girlfriend.
It’s a weird dude.
It’s the thing you whack over the net in badminton.
It’s the offering up of a middle finger in a gesture of disdain.
It’s a hissing or jeering as an auditory gesture of disdain.
It’s a thin piece of meat rolled up and stuffed with something.
It’s a man-made flying device such as a plane or drone or satellite.
And, of course, it is, in the word’s of Merriam-Webster, “any class of warm-blooded vertebrates distinguished by having the body more or less completely covered with feathers and the forelimbs modified as wings.”
What’s more interesting than the definitions of the word itself is the way it is being used.
Little bird is not merely a reference to one of the smaller of the species, but also a term used to suggest a person who passed along some sort of secret and did it anonymously. One of history’s most famous little birds was Deep Throat who spilled the beans on Watergate and set in motion the end of the Nixon presidency.
The phrase a bird in hand is usually used as part of the larger tidbit of wisdom “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” Basically that’s saying stick with what you’ve got rather than risk it on an uncertain vision of something better. The bird in hand folks would keep their bills in their pockets rather than buy a stack of lottery tickets.
Birds of a feather may be what you are trying to achieve by matching profiles on a dating site. Or you may use the phrase to characterize people. Are Chuck Shumer and Nancy Pelosi birds of a feature? How about Donald Trump and Ted ‘Cancun’ Cruz?
If you are eating like a bird, you’re probably hungry. It means you aren’t consuming very much, although judging from activity around the bird feeder in my backyard, some birds eat pretty heartily if you give them something they like.
For the birds means it’s not very good. It can be a book, a meal, a movie, a hotel, just about anything. It’s a daintier way of saying something sucks.
If you killed two birds with one stone you are multitasking. Or maybe just dual tasking. If you went to the store to buy food for dinner and while you were there got some glue to fix the vase you knocked over and broke, you’re killing two birds with one stone.
And if you’re talking about the birds and the bees, you’re talking sex, though I’m at a complete loss to understand how to make that connection.
In addition to all of these idioms, bird is used in a number of ways in song lyrics. The first that springs to mind for me is the Beatles lonely lament about the apparent end of a one-night stand:
And, when I awoke
I was alone
This bird had flown
The Everly Brothers sang with disdain about Johnny, the guy who was apparently buzzing around the songwriter’s girlfriend.
Hey bird dog get away from my quail
Hey bird dog you’re on the wrong trail
Bird dog you better leave my lovely-dove alone.
There’s the somewhat interminable Lynyrd Skynyrd breakup song, which explains:
But if I stay with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
‘Cause I’m free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change.
And how could this post end any other way than by musically pointing out that “The bird is the word!” Everybody sing!