This week on the HH YouTube channel, we looked at the origins and meanings of 10 complimentary words—including nods to handsome criminals, Ancient Greek courtesans, and a man who lived in a barrel.
But another term that we could have included on this list popped up on the HH Twitter feed the other day:
Despite the fact that being bird-brained means precisely the opposite, the heraldic image of the eagle as the king of birds is the origin this nickname (which, incidentally, was first used in the seventeenth century as an epitaph for René Descartes). But when it comes to intelligence, oddly a bird from the opposite end of the ornithological food chain also rears its head:
sparrow (n.) … A chirpy, quick-witted person.
That’s part of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word sparrow, which it also points out is probably at the root of expressions like London sparrow and little Cockney sparrow (the latter of which is also why you might call a good friend a cocker).
So eagles are symbols of intelligence—but sparrows?
The missing link here lies in the language (and appetites) of nineteenth century England. Sparrows were once so common that to many families they were a cheap (and, according to some at least, very appetising) source of meat. The bird’s chirpy, gregarious behaviour led to a tradition that anyone who ate sparrows—and, in particular, a dish of sparrow pie—would assume similar characteristics themselves. As the English Dialect Dictionary explains:
SPARROW PIE, SPARROW PUDDING … a fancy dish, supposed to make a person preternaturally sharp
By the nineteenth century, saying that someone had “dined on sparrow pie” was a phrase used to point out that they had made a particularly inspired or intelligent remark—while one account of a political debate that made the pages of the London Daily News in November 1896 remarked how impervious the Liberal candidate, a Mr A Billson, was to heckling:
Mr. Billson is an eminently persuasive speaker… The heckler who intends to corner the Liberal candidate for East Bradford must rise very early in the morning and dine very liberally off “sparrow-pudding”.
Being sparrow-brained suddenly doesn’t seem quite as bad as it might sound.