Birds fascinated my father. I could never quite understand why. Not until he died. My mother dumped his bird-watching books on me. Then I knew what the scientist in him saw when he watched birds in their natural habitat: great variety, adaptations to environment, the living proof of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, at least among finches. I began to observe these ubiquitous creatures more closely. Particularly crows and ravens. “Bird brain,” an overused idiom, apparently does not apply to these highly intelligent animals, some of whom come close to certain apes in intellectual aptitude.
“Birds of a feather, flock together.” The words of this proverb popped into my mind recently, renewing my fascination with the amazing richness of the English language. In a way, I think, English is somewhat like a raven, or maybe I’m thinking of a magpie, curious, willing to eat just about anything to feed itself, to stay alive and strong.
How do phrases such as this become part of English?
First, some simple definitions for some things that are anything but simple:
Proverb: A short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.
Idiom: A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).
In the case of “Birds flock together,” received wisdom has it that in 1545, William Turner – Anglican and antipapist – included a variation of it in a satirical work, The Rescuing of Romish Fox:
“Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye together.“
I turned to a few books on my shelves to explore this fascinating tendency of language to reflect wisdom via short, terse, pithy phrases. One book – Jag Bhalla’s 2009 tiny tome, I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (meaning the same as “I’m not pulling you leg” in English – I’ve owned for several years. The other came home with me the other day, a prize gleaned from the last day of a spectacular book sale, what remained of 500,000 books at the bi-annual Friends of the Library Book Sale. Rummaging around in the wreckage left by thousands of pawing hands, I pulled out Suzanne Brock’s 1988 gem, Idiom’s Delight: Fascinating Phrases and Linguistic Eccentricities – Spanish, French, Italian, Latin. For a thin dime, I walked away with a book of wisdom that reaches past the confines of English and shows that, at root, we humans tend to describe our world pretty much the same, regardless of culture and even language. So much information packed into just a few words.
No necesita abuela. (He doesn’t need a grandmother), or, in the English sense, “He toots his own horn.”
Or what about this one: Semper graculus assidet graculo. (A blackbird always sits close to a blackbird), or, again in English, “Birds of a feather sit (flock) together.”*
Timeless, this tendency of human nature, no?
*Plato might be credited with one of the earliest usages of this bit of wisdom, in The Republic, part 3. “Cephalus: I will tell you, Socrates, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says … .”
© 2017 C. Bertelsen