Accessibility links

Breaking News

March 17, 2002 - Slangman: Bird Terms ('The Ugly Duckling') - 2002-03-15

SFX: Bird sounds

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER – with spring time approaching here in the United States our thoughts turn to bird watching.

RS: Birds are easy to spot in everyday speech. A hierarchy in an organization is called a "pecking order." We don't just say "be happy with what you've got" -- we say "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush," or just simply "a bird in hand ... “ And, when children grow up and move out of their parents’ house, they "leave the nest."

AA: Slangman David Burke joins us now from Los Angeles with his own version of the children's fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling” using bird-related terms.

RS: As we pick up the story, a duck has just given birth to twelve little ducklings. So how could she afford such a large family?


"Luckily she had a 'nest egg.' Now a nest egg is a lot of money that you save over the years. The money she saved wasn't 'chicken feed.' If you make very little money, we say 'I'm making chicken feed.' Her new children were the prettiest little ducklings you ever saw. She thought, when they're older, I'll teach them about the 'birds ... '"

RS: " ... and the bees."

BURKE: "'And the bees.' Now I don't know why we say that, but it's a euphemism for sex. Fortunately, she didn't 'count her chickens before they were hatched' -- that means you count on something before it actually happens -- because there was still one very large egg that did not open yet.

"Finally the last chick appeared. One of the chicks actually said, 'He's so ugly, what a turkey!' Now frankly I have nothing against turkeys, but I guess in American slang we do, because anything that's considered bad is a 'turkey.' The mother wondered if maybe he really was a turkey. So she made each of them get into the water, because everyone knows that turkeys can't swim. She watched him 'like a hawk.'"

RS: "Very closely."

BURKE: "Yes. At first he was 'chicken' to get in the water."

RS: "Afraid."

BURKE: "Afraid. The others yelled 'get in the water, you 'bird brain.'"

RS: "Stupid."

BURKE: "Right, exactly. Well, just because he was ugly, they thought he was a 'dodo.' A dodo bird is a really big, big, big bird that doesn't do much, it just sort of sits there."

AA: "It's extinct, isn't it?"

BURKE: "And extinct -- and he doesn't exist anymore -- a 'dodo,' and he would 'chicken out.' But he did not 'stick his head in the sand' like an ostrich. He wanted to prove to the others that he could swim and that he was brave. That way he could 'kill two birds with one stone.' Ouch. This is an expression that is just so horrible, but it's common. To 'kill two birds with one stone,' it means to accomplish two things at the same time.

"Well, he swam beautifully -- better than the others. The ducks all returned to the farm. He thought 'this place is for the birds.' This means undesirable. So he ran away but found a family of geese who said, 'Please join us.' Suddenly they all heard shots being fired. It was hunters. The geese all yelled, 'duck!" AA: "Get down!"

BURKE: "'Duck!' simply means -- right -- get down. All the geese flew away quickly, but the duckling couldn't fly and started running around like a 'chicken with his head cut off.'"

AA: "Which is what chickens that get their heads cut off tend to do."

BURKE: "That's right. Well, he really needed to relax and 'get all his ducks in a row' and decide what to do. When you 'get all your ducks in a row,' it means you're becoming organized. So he ran and ran until he stopped at a pond with the most beautiful birds. They were swans. He thought, 'They're so beautiful!' But he felt sad because he was so ugly. He bent his head down toward the water in shame and saw his reflection -- he was beautiful! The other swans said to him, 'Please join our family. We knew you'd come. Why? A little birdie told us.'"

AA and RS: "Awww ... "

BURKE: "Isn't that sweet? Anytime we know something, but it's sort of a secret how we know it -- for example, if I were to say to Rosanne, 'Rosanne, I heard it's your birthday,' and you said, 'how'd you know?' -- well, a little birdie told me. Well, the moral of this story is, 'birds of a feather ... "

RS: "Flock together."

BURKE: "Flock together, which simply means, people who are alike stay together. Now, the actual expression is 'birds of a feather flock together,' but we shorten it and simply say, 'Well, birds of a feather ... "

AA: ... can flock together to Slangman David Burke's Web site to learn all about his books and other teaching materials. It's And you can find all of our old scripts with Slangman on our new Wordmaster site.

RS: That's at And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "The Ugly Duckling"/Danny Kaye

[A final note ... Influential economist James Tobin of Yale University died March 11 at the age of 84. He received the 1981 Nobel Prize in economics for his "portfolio theory" about investment decisions. And how did James Tobin sum up this theory? In his words, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."]