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Where did that phrase come from - For the birds
Stan St. Clair

By Stan St. Clair

For the birds is a figure of speech applied to something which is thought to be trivial or worthless, not worthy of one’s attention. There is more than one theory as to how it came to mean this. 

The earliest citations of something being for the birds are in Old Testament biblical passages. Isaiah 8, which, after stating that unproductive shoots will be cut off before the harvest of fruit, in verse 6 (KJV, 1611) says:

“They will all be left for the birds of the hills and the wild animals …”

Jeremiah 16:4 says that the corpses of those killed in war “will be food for the birds and the wild animals …”

Both verses are speaking of something which is undesirable being “for the birds.”

Another source states that before the advent of automobiles in New York City, the manure dropped by horses pulling wagons caused a lot of stink. The horses were served oats, so it was suggested that the undigested oats be used to feed a large population of English sparrows. According to this source, saying something was “for the birds” was saying it was “horse manure.”

Another popular source says that it originated near the end of World War II as army slang. An article in October, 1944, in The Lowell Sun, Lowell, Mass., quotes Sgt. Buck Erickson, of Camp Ellis, Illinois as saying:

“Don’t take too seriously this belief that we have football at Camp Ellis solely for the entertainment of the personnel – that’s strictly for the birds. The army is a winner … the army likes to win – that’s the most fortunate thing in the world for America.”

But this is a bit late, as there is a plain reference to the saying in Jobber Skald, a novel by British author, John Cowper Powys, 1935, on page 119:

“‘I told him it was a piece of silliness,’ she said in her heart as she snatched those furtive glances of the Mangel Road … with a fling of her arm. ‘That’s for the birds!’ she said aloud. But the phrase carried no mental or physical image with it, either of birds or of anything else. All that it carried with it was a passionate desire to tell Magnus right out that she could not possibly marry him.”

If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.