Why Do We Say...?

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Rooster is the common term today for a male chicken, and most people utter it without realizing that it is a euphemism, a “good” word employed in place of a “bad” one.

The word rooster is an Americanism, and its appearance in the written record toward the end of the eighteenth century helps signal a major cultural and linguistic change, as people began to be much more fastidious when speaking of sex, death, and their bodies. This is the period when bosom, limb, and donkey replaced breast, leg, and ass; when breeches and trousers became inexpressibles, unmentionables, and nether garments; when died was superseded on gravestones by passed away, laid to rest, and fell asleep; and when the sexually potent barnyard bull was converted into the cow brute, cow’s spouse, and gentleman cow.

The oldest example of rooster in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from the diary of a 12-year-old girl, Anna Green Winslow, who was sent in 1770 from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to school in Boston. A bright and sensitive observer of the contemporary scene, she noted in her journal for March 14, 1772: “Their other dish … contain’d a number of roast fowls —half a dozen, we suppose, & all roosters at this season, no doubt.”

Rooster’s origin is self-evident, referring to the bird’s habit of perching on high (ultimately from the Old English hrost, the spars or rafters of a house). Anna certainly didn’t invent the word; she picked it up from her elders, who had begun using it in preference to cock, the bird’s traditional name for a millennium. The Old English name is innocent enough, mostly likely deriving from the bird’s crowing ku-ku-roo, but it made newly genteel Americans nervous. They couldn’t say or hear the word without thinking of its other, anatomical meaning.

Americans were far ahead of their British cousins in latching on to rooster. Fifty years after Anna’s observation, James Flint still felt that he had to explain to readers back home in his Letters From America (1822) that the “Rooster, or he-bird [is the] Cock, the male of the hen.”

This squeamishness led to a raft of other changes during the nineteenth century. For example, Americans began speaking of haystacks instead of haycocks; of children’s riding horses instead of cockhorses; of roaches and rooster-roaches instead of cockroaches; of rooster fighting instead of cockfighting; of the rooster of a gun rather than its cock; and of weather roosters and weathervanes instead of weathercocks. The nervousness even extended to people’s names. We know the author of Little Women as Louisa May Alcott because her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, changed his surname from Alcox, itself a euphemistic distortion of the earlier, more highly charged Alcocke (in turn, possibly, from Allcock).

Other evasions appear to have been proposed with tongue in cheek, among them roostercade for cockade, rooster swain for coxswain, the doubly euphemistic rooster’s shirt for cocktail, and, a rare triple euphemism, rooster-and-ox story for cock-and-bull tale. The apparent jocularity shows what was on people’s minds, however. And sometimes there was no joking. Well into the twentieth century, inhabitants of the Ozarks were still watching their words very carefully. As Vance Randolph reported in a 1928 article in Dialect Notes, “I myself have seen grown men, when women were present, blush and stammer at the mere mention of such commonplace bits of hardware as stop-cocks or pet-cocks, and avoid describing a gun as cocked by some clumsy circumlocution as she’s ready to go or th’ hammer’s back.”

All this may seem quaintly funny in our present liberated age. Yet we continue to say rooster (as well as donkey and haystack) and, when presented with the rooster’s spouse at the dinner table, we are likely to ask for white meat or dark meat instead of breast or thigh and for a drumstick instead of a leg. Thus we honor our ancestors’ hang-ups. We ourselves have none, of course.

—Hugh Rawson