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Victorian Slang of the Week


chicken–I’ve talked about “chick” used to refer to people, including oneself. There is another meaning, however, that we are more closely associated with: coward. Interestingly, chicken wasn’t used that way in the 19th century.  The first reference in terms of cowardly is 1933.  I would not have thought that.   Nor did one “chicken out” until 1934.

However,  one could be 1) chicken-livered, which did mean cowardly.  The first reference on this was 1871, by Mark Twain.  There weren’t a lot of other references, however one could also be a 2) chicken-gizzard–a coward.  There’s only one reference to this, in 1851.

The only other reference I could find that came even close to cowardly was “gone chicken” or “dead chicken” (1863) but that seems to be mostly about someone being in a dismal, probably unrecoverable, situation, often in reference to oneself.  “Once Harold found out that she’d been unfaithful, she was a dead chicken.”

So. . . I could very well have incorrectly used chicken in one of my books.  Too late now, but I’ll be watching for this in the future!


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