pecking order / henpecked

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pecking order / henpecked

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Mar 06, 2014 5:31 am

<2014 “It has taken researchers almost a century to figure out what is going on in the brains of chickens. The first inklings emerged from the studies conducted in the 1920s when Norwegian biologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe established that birds have a dominance system, which he named the ‘pecking order’ after noting that chickens will enforce their leadership by administrating a sharp peck of the beak to underlings whenever they get ideas above their station.”—Scientific American, February, page 62>

PECKING ORDER [[1927]]: Hierarchy; the levels of authority within a group of people or an organization; one’s relative degree of predominance, aggressiveness, or power in comparison to others. This expression alludes to ‘dominance hierarchy’—a zoological term for the instinctive vertical ranking among birds and social mammals, in which the stronger animals assert their dominance over the smaller, weaker ones. Among domestic fowl, particularly chickens, the hierarchy is virtually uncontested thus, the bird highest on the barnyard totem pole can peck at the dominated without worry of retaliation. Hence, avian dominance hierarchy came to be known as pecking order and, by extension, pecking order developed its figurative application in human affairs. [[Note: For some theories on the how and the why of ‘pecking order’ see Wikipedia here.]]

The following definitions are from the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY and the quotes for each definition are from the OED and archived sources:

PECKING-ORDER noun [from ‘pecking’ + ‘order’ after German Hackordnung (1925 in the source translated in the 1927 quote below; compare earlier Hackliste (T. J. Schjelderup-Ebbe 1922, in Zeitschr. f. Psychologie 88 227)).

1) Animal Behaviour. A social hierarchy amongst a group of animals (originally observed in hens) in which those of higher rank within the group are able to attack or threaten those of lower rank without retaliation.
<1927 “Such ‘pecking orders’ give the society concerned a certain degree of organization.”—Social Life in Animal World by K. C. Creasy, translated from German by F. Alverdes, page 124>

<1928 “Observing the habitual and almost sacred ‘pecking order’ which prevails among the hens in his poultry yard . . . the politician will meditate on the Catholic hierarchy and Fascism.”—Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, xxvi. page 438>

<1965 “Normal monkeys, like many other kinds of animals, form a sort of pecking order.”—The Listener (BBC, London), 10 June, page 861>

<1993 “Every dog in a human family has the innate need to follow a human leader as a result of the pecking order instinct.”—Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico), 6 February, page a2/4>
2) Generally. Any hierarchy based on rank or status.
<1935 “The leader, in short, is the man whose only thought is to dominate his fellows; his scheme of life is the ‘pecking-order’, and his sole aim is to rise, by pecking others, as high as he can within this order.”—I. Edman in American Philosophy by H. M. Kallen & S. Hook, page 200> [[That's one hell of an ampersand!]]

<1955 “In a perfect classless society . . . similar pecking orders must exist.”—Good Behaviour by H. Nicolson, i. page 7>

<1967 “The inspector had a pretty low rating in the CID's pecking order.”—Foul Play by J. Potter, xvi. page 184>

<1999 “Just for once, they seemed immune to the jibes of . . . the popular athletes at the top of the school pecking order.”—Daily Mail (London), 22 April, page 2/4>

<2007 “ Postwar Pontiacs were just a step above Chevrolet in the GM pecking order, with Cadillac at the top.”—Chicago Sun-times (Illinois), 15 January>

<2014 “The bout of nerves was perhaps unsurprising, given she's moved her show from London to Paris, and it's seen as a huge leap up the fashion pecking order.”—AP Worldstream, 25 February>
And now for the $64 question: Is henpecking in pecking order?

HENPECKED / HEN-PECKED adjective [1671]: (of a man). Continually browbeaten, bullied, tormented, nagged, or intimidated by one's wife, girlfriend, or partner; domineered over by, or subject to the rule of, a woman, especially one’s wife. <A henpecked husband who never dared to contradict his wife.> (Random House Unabridged Dictionary and Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged)

My first thought here was how could the above meaning of ‘henpecked’ have evolved from the hen/rooster relationship? On the face of it, it looks to be a contradiction. What is a hen doing pecking at a rooster, an individual who is above her station in the pecking order hierarchy? Above, in Urdang’s ‘pecking order’ listing, he claims “particularly [[among]] chickens, the hierarchy is virtually uncontested.” So how is the seeming contradiction to be resolved?

My theory is that she is not actually challenging the rooster for leadership of the roost, but is merely trying to grab his attention in order to offer timely suggestions such as pointing out instances where she deems some roosterly improvement would be desirable. This might include areas ranging from his leadership style (treatment of hens . . .), to deportment (sharpening up his strut and his crow. . .), to matters of his personal hygiene.

Here are some alternative explanations:


HENPECKED: Although hens rarely peck at roosters in the barnyard, where the rooster is the cock of the walk, it was widely believed in the 17th century that they often pulled feathers from young roosters below them in the pecking order. This led to the comparison of domineering wives to aggressive hens.

So, FFEWPO is saying that 17th-century folks ‘widely believed’ that non-dominant roosters (a possibility not heretofore considered) were getting their feathers pecked by hens above them in the pecking order. Well, that provides a loophole, which keeps the pecking order rule in tact. But wait a second! The implication here is that 17th century folks ‘believed’ this, but that it was later found to be untrue. How could they have gotten such a readily observable fact wrong? Nevertheless, such a misapprehension, if that’s what this was, doesn’t preclude it from having been the origin of the expression.

Here is another explanation from a usually reliable source:


HENPECKED: To be nagged at constantly or completely dominated by one’s wife. Chickens instinctively develop a pecking order—a hierarchy in which the stronger birds assert their authority and dominance over the weaker ones. Once a chicken had established its position at the top of the pecking order, it may peck at the others with no fear of reprisal. Thus this expression likens the pecking of a dominant hen to the eternal yammering of a harpy.

Hmm! Some fancy footwork here also preserves the rule of the pecking order without having to resort to the non-dominant rooster ploy. This explanation for the origin makes no claim that the rooster is being pecked at by a hen. Instead, it likens the harassment that a dominant hen doles out to her underlings, to the persistent harassment of a harpy – a scolding, nagging, bad-tempered woman, a shrew. In Greek mythology a harpy was a predatory monster represented as having a woman's head and the body and claws of a vulture and as being an instrument of divine vengeance.

And finally, here’s the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY’s short and sweet take:

HEN-PECKED adjective, colloquial: Domineered over by, or subject to the rule of, a wife.

Etymology: Literally pecked by a hen or hens: alluding to the plucking of some of the feathers of the domestic cock by his hens.

Notice that the OED etymology for ‘hen-pecked’ says “his hens” so that the implication is that it is a dominant rooster that is getting pecked. Given the above four possible etymologies, even though I have a soft spot for my own, I would go with the simplest and most straightforward explanation, which is that of the OED.

The following quotes for henpecked are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<circa 1680 “The henpect Man rides behind his Wife, and lets her wear the Spurs and govern the Reins.”—The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler S. Butler (1759) by Smaule S. Butler, II. page 104>

<1820 “An obedient henpecked husband.”—The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent by Washington Irving, I. page 59>

<1923 “A little red-faced man, rather beery and hen-pecked looking.”—Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, i. page 4>

<1987 “I lamented how the new Superman of comic-book fame was becoming, well, henpecked by a more stridently feminist Lois Lane. Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 1 January>

<2014 “. . . but to hear her tell it, they come not so much from different backgrounds as from different planets — though they’re not the henpecked husband and the dragon-lady wife of the public imagination.”—New York Times, 29 January>
It strikes me that chicken behavior should be a readily observable fact and to find out what chickens really do, rather than relying on the word of etymologists (who don’t seem to agree) it might be a good idea to listen to what those who raise them have to say.

So, is it true as Urdang claims that “Among domestic fowl, particularly chickens, the hierarchy is virtually uncontested.”? The answer is, it appears not! A Google search provides many examples of the chicken pecking order being defied. And, although such behavior is not the norm, it doesn’t seem to be regarded as all that extraordinary by chicken affectionados.

Ideally, it is desirable to have a clear and stable pecking order (for reasons mentioned in the above Wikipedia link). And for the most part this hierarchy does exist among chickens. However, Urdang’s above assertion is misleading. There are many events which can temporarily challenge and disrupt the pecking order. For example, when a new chicken is introduced to the flock or an old one disappears there is often a period of panic during which fights breaks out between chickens jockeying for position. But this is soon sorted out with the winners and losers taking up their positions in the new pecking order that has been established. Other challenges may occur when a chicken lower in the pecking order senses that a chicken above is weaker from age, sickness, or injury. Or, an ornery chicken may just decide that it’s time to try to move up in the world.

But what of those insubordinate hens pecking at the boss’s feathers? It appears that such behavior may occur without the hen actually challenging the rooster’s position as top chicken and with the rooster going along with this. Aha! A henpecked rooster. On the other hand, a dominant hen may actually peck at what she perceives to be a weak leader in an effort to wrest control of the flock. If she wins and he lives through it, he can also look forward to a life as a henpecked rooster.

It should also be noted that as the number of chickens in a group increases the pecking order hierarchy breaks down until for large, industrial-strength chicken farming, pecking order is nonexistent and what was normal chicken life is no more. (>:)

For some further ‘pecking order’ info from folks who seem to know their chickens, see here, here and here. Also see here for a henpecked rooster.

So much for chickenology or is it peckerdom?

Ken G – March 5, 2014

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Mar 06, 2014 8:53 am

Some years ago I was staying in a farmhouse just outside Barcelona (Spain). The family that lived there kept a handful of chickens to provide them with eggs. In the shed with the chickens was a most unfortunate creature less than half their size which was very obviously at the bottom of the pecking order. This was a solitary pigeon whose neck, shoulders and breast were almost completely denuded of feathers. The reason was not hard to see -- every half minute or so, one of the chickens would aim a vicious-looking peck in the general direction of its head. As far as I recall, the victim never tried to retaliate or defend itself.

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by plwimsett » Thu Apr 03, 2014 8:47 am

Course there's the old joke of a man who keeps pecking away, eating grain, generally flapping his arms. We would hypnotize him out of it, but we need the eggs.

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by Shelley » Sat Apr 26, 2014 1:43 pm

Ken Greenwald wrote:aaa
. . . And finally, here’s the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY’s short and sweet take:

HEN-PECKED adjective, colloquial: Domineered over by, or subject to the rule of, a wife. . . .
You say that like it's a bad thing. ;^)

(Happy wife, happy life!)

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by hsargent » Mon Apr 28, 2014 3:10 am

Pecking order does not imply genders. Hen-pecked does. Pecking order is in a group. Hen-pecked refers only to relative the male.

I don't see a relationship.

And to bully does not have a gender reference. Pecking order does imply some one is bullying the lessers!

That should provide enough metaphors.
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by tony h » Mon Apr 28, 2014 10:59 pm

This always seemed to be about flocks disliking strangers - and not always strangers. Put a strange hen or a timid cock in among a group of mature hens and they will soon give the stranger short shrift. I include a couple of quotes from hen keepers web sites: ... ckens.aspx
Problematic pecking can spread as a harmful habit throughout your flock. Although pecking usually starts as an innocent event in chickens of all types and ages, it can quickly escalate into a more serious situation if timely intervention and management changes are not implemented before it leads to cannibalism. If excessive pecking or cannibalism becomes a problem within your flock, there are several simple approaches to reduce it.

Pecking and Cannibalism Prevention
The old saying "birds of a feather flock together” has validity when it comes to chickens. The best way to avoid aggressive behavior is to keep a flock that is uniform in breed, age, size and health status. Any chicken that deviates from "normal” could become a victim of aggression. Be sure to separate any sick or weak birds as soon as possible to minimize the pecking instinct that can lead to cannibalism. ... ckingOrder
Q: Is there really such a thing as a "pecking order"?
A: Yes. This is a very real phenomenon. All chicken flocks have a well-defined pecking order. It's their way of preventing mayhem.

The lucky chicken at the top of the pecking order basically gets to push everyone around. She gets first access to food, water, prime roosting spots and so on. If she doesn't like what anyone else is doing she has full pecking rights. She gets to tell any other chicken to bug off. The poor baby at the bottom of the pecking order is in the exact opposite situation: everyone in the flock can peck her, and she has last rights to food and other resources. The other chickens in a flock fall somewhere between these two extremes. The #2 chicken can only be bullied by the #1 chicken and can bully everyone else in turn, and so on and so on.

Pecking order is established at a very early age and usually remains unchallenged until death.
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Apr 29, 2014 9:33 am

I think it's sad that credit wasn't given to the discoverer.

The Schjelderup-Ebbe volucrine dominance order has a cachet about it, and just trips off the tongue.

Re: pecking order / henpecked

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Apr 29, 2014 9:43 am

If you'll agree to call it the Schjelderup-Ebbe volucrine dominance hierarchy, then we'll really be cooking with gas from the Norwegian Sea.

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