Thursday, November 17, 2016

Birds of a Feather

One of my interests and hobbies is what I think of as the Romance of Language. I got that expression from a book title of a book about Latin root words I used to read with my dad when I was a kid.What I mean by the expression Romance of Language is the development of language and how language got to be the way it is. I enjoy the study of language and I find it fascinating to see the many, many ways that the English language has changed, how words were born and evolved, et al. Dad enjoyed the study and so do I.

This past week I was reading a book in which the author used the expression birds of a feather to describe like-minded folk gathering together to share thought and conversation. The author's use of the idiom got me wondering about the use of the words and how long we have been using the expression in just such a way. Who coined the expression and why on why are the birds on the short end of the stick here?

Maybe you share my curiosity. Sadly I don't have much information that is accurate. Every single website that I consulted informed me that the idiom birds of a feather is a fairly recent English construct meaning a gathering of like-minded individuals. Most websites told me that it is an idiom of no more than about four hundred years. Most idiom origin websites give variations on the theme to this:

This proverb has been in use since at least the mid 16th century. In 1545 William Turner used a version of it in his papist satire The Rescuing of Romish Fox:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.  (I love that!)

The first known citation in print of the currently used English version of the phrase appeared in 1599, in The Dictionarie in Spanish and English, which was compiled by the English lexicographer John Minsheu:

Birdes of a feather will flocke togither.

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 27:10 also gives us aversion of the idiom:
Birds resort unto their like.

Want to know why I doubt the veracity of these websites?

The book that I was reading this past week was The Republic by Plato, a book written approximately 2300 years ago. In the book Plato used the birds of a feather to describe the propensity for older gentlemen to hang out with other older gentlemen to chew the fat.

Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says.
If, indeed the translator got the idiom correct, Plato tells us that the proverb is old. Old to Plato in 380BCE. Isn't that interesting?

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