PICTURESQUE EXPRESSIONS by Laurence Urdang<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 []: 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.
2) Generally. Any hierarchy based on rank or status.<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>
And now for the $64 question: Is henpecking in pecking order?<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>
HENPECKED / HEN-PECKED adjective : (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:
THE FACTS ON FILE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS
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:
PICTURESQUE EXPRESSIONS by Laurence Urdang
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:
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.<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>
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