Why Are Cowards Called “Chickens”?

Stand and fight, coward!
Stand and fight, coward! / TomasSereda/iStock via Getty Images

Anyone who refuses a double-dog dare is liable to be labeled a chicken. How dogs found their way into dare culture remains a bit of a mystery—but the reason cowards are called “chickens” is slightly clearer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest written instance of the word chicken in the craven sense comes from William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, circa 1616. "Forthwith they fly, Chickens,” he wrote, describing soldiers fleeing a battlefield. 

But as Grammarphobia reports, domestic fowl had been associated with an absence of bravery long before the 17th century. One play from around 1450 described a coward as a “henne-harte,” and poet John Skelton likened some spineless courtiers to “hen-hearted cuckolds” in his poem Why Come Ye Nat to Courte circa 1529. Hens may have seemed especially timid because roosters were typically characterized as plucky. If you were a leader, a dauntless warrior, or just a dominant presence in the mid-16th century, someone might call you a “cock” (as a compliment). And when people first started using the term hen to tag submissive or cowardly folks in the 1600s, they were often juxtaposing it with cock

Take, for example, the closing stanza of a late 17th-century ballad known as Taylor’s Lamentation:

“Ever since then she bears such a sway,
That I am forc’d her Laws to obey.
She is the Cock and I am the Hen,
This is my case, Oh! pity me then.”

The sexist subtext here isn’t exactly hidden: Female chickens, like female humans, are characterized as subdued and faint-hearted, taking cues from their valorous and powerful male counterparts. Any time the script is flipped, pity is in order for the poor man. Fortunately, the less gendered phrase (hens and roosters are all chickens) won out over time, though it’s not totally clear why. Chicken meaning fool—which may have been an offshoot of goose-as-fool—first started showing up in print around 1600. So it seems possible that the coward connotation caught on partly because the term also worked as a more general insult, too.

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