In a comment I found the sentence:

…are too chicken…

I'm native Germany and quickly looked up the meaning.

Still, I do not understand the "chicken" association.

My question:

Why is "chicken" being used as a synonym for cowardly/gutless/sneaky?


1 Answer 1


I did a little research on the subject. There are many references in the early 20th century, and quite a few less in the 19th century.

I found a reference of Pithy, Pleasaunt and Profitable Workes of Maister Skelton, 1568, Poete Laureate to King Henry the VIIIth as having said:

The French men he hath so mated
And their courage abated
That they are but halfe men
Like foxes in their den
Like cankerd cowardes all
Like heons in a stone wall
They kept them in their holdes
Like hen herted cuckoldes

Searching back further, Pulcher in the naval battle of Drepana by the Romans in 249 BC was reportedly said to have tried to feed sacred chickens on the day of the battle. The idea was that if the chickens ate, the gods were appeased, and if they didn't, it was a bad omen.

The chickens didn't take the offering, and Pulcher supposedly threw them overboard instead saying "Let them drink, since they don't wish to eat." (Latin "Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt.). This was no doubt an attempt to offer an alternative interpretation for the sake of the morale of his men before battle.

It is dubious whether or not this happened, but it certainly would have shaped the impression of chickens and cowardess.

Nowadays "chicken" is just slang for calling someone cowardly.

  • 1
    Maybe all along it was a typo? sacred chickens -> scared chickens? :-) Apr 6, 2018 at 13:45

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