Why Do We Call People Chickens?

The last time you heard someone call another person a “chicken” unironically, you were probably like… On the playground. You might also be familiar with the game of chicken, which is often used as a pretty foundational example for the study of like… game theory. But there are a lot of animals out there, and of the animals likely to run away from you, chickens probably don’t come to mind first. You probably thought of it like… the squirrel or rabbit you saw in someone’s lawn. So what’s up with that, why do we call people chickens?

Further Reading: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The Game

Let’s start with the game of chicken. While not really the answer we’re looking for, losing a game of chicken is part of the reason why we call people chickens. But that’s not really the point. Plus, the game is called “chicken” because we associate the insult with cowardice, and not the other way around.

Either way, while playing chicken is applied to any kind of brinkmanship-scenario, its origins begin with what you probably thought of when we said “chicken” and what you’ve probably seen in almost any car movie. You know, when two people drive straight at each other, and the first one who swerves is a chicken. If you studied the social sciences, you might see the players of chicken broken down into “hawks” or “doves.” Where the prisoner’s dilemma (another common foundation to an understanding of game theory), is a coordination game, chicken is an anti-coordination game.

The problem with chicken is determining what the smartest move is. If you want to live (like a rational person), you should swerve at the last possible second. However, you will lose the game, and if you assume the person you’re playing against is a similarly rational person they’re going to want to do the same thing. In which case, your rational move would be to not swerve, because your opponent will. You can do this recursively forever back and forth. 

But why chickens, though?

So the chickens you’ll see on a farm probably don’t require an undergraduate course in economics/game theory to understand. They just… kind of get to vibe. While making really loud noises in the morning like alarm clocks on legs. None of which is particularly cowardly. Chickens, while typically docile, can be pretty aggressive in captivity or on farms. They’ll even eat each other, and sometimes they are made to wear blinders and rose-tinted glasses. They’re thought to reduce violent behavior because then the chickens can’t see blood anymore. This aggression is mostly borne from how we treat chickens in farms though (hint, really, really poorly). 

One of the oldest written uses of “chicken” to mean “coward” dates back to Kemps Nine Daies Wonder, dating back to 1600. Here’s the line:

“I told hill and all his anger turned to laughter, swearing it did him good to haue ill words of a hoddy doddy, a habber de hoy, a chicken, a squib, a squall, one that hath not wit enough to make a ballet, that, by.”

There’s also Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (1616), where we get “A rout, confusion thick; forthwith they fly chickens the way which they stoop’d eagles.” The chicken imagery is invoked here to describe soldiers fleeing a battlefield, so the use tracks. 

Using domesticated birds as a term for cowardice goes back farther than the 1600s, with “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte,” a poem written in 1529 using the term “hen-hearted” as an insult. Through the 1500s “cock” was much less of an insult, and sometimes just used either as a compliment or a term of endearment. Male chickens were generally perceived to be dominant and plucky at the time. The use of “hen” was likely used as an insult to contrast with “cock.” It was typically used to refer to submissive individuals (while “cock” was typically used in reference to powerful leaders). This is a long way of saying the insult “hen” has a lot of sexist subtext, and you can draw a pretty straight line between it and the modern insult “chicken.” 

If you think we’re getting the ““hen” was used to insult women or less masculine people as a contrast to the compliment “cock”” out of nowhere, the contrast between the two has been used as literary rhetoric since at least the 1600s. Taylor’s Lamentation, a ballad written by some guy about another gal gives us this:

“Ever since then she bears such a sway,

That I am fo•c’d her Laws to obey.

She is the Cock and I am the Hen,

This is my case, Oh! pity me then.”

See if you know where all the chickens are here. Literally, this time.