meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to get the bird’



detail from the frontispiece to The Life of an Actor (1825), by Pierce Egan



The phrase to get, or to givethe bird means to receive, or to showderisionto be dismissed, or to dismiss.

It originated in theatrical slang and referred to the ‘big bird’, that is, the goose, which hisses as people do when they make a sound of disapproval at a bad public performance. In Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes, containing anecdotes, historical and biographical, of the English and Scottish stages, during a period of forty years (London – 1805), the English actor Charles Lee Lewes (1740-1803) wrote:

Actors, to whatever theatre they belong, have generally a peculiar mode of expressing or naming that mark of disapprobation in an audience, so well known by the term of hissing. By some it is said the goose is in the house, others term it the large fowlthe Roman bird* is frequented adopted, and in short every theatre has its own particular phrase, for what every actor acknowledges the most disagreeable note that can vibrate in his hearing.

(* the Roman bird: probably an allusion to the sacred geese of Juno, which by their honking and wing-beating warned the Romans besieged on the Capitoline Hill around 390 BC that Gallic commandos were approaching)

The British sporting journalist and author Pierce Egan (1772-1849) thus described and commented the frontispiece to his book, The Life of an Actor (London – 1825):

       The drop-scene, at one view, displays the difficulty of becoming a first-rate actor.
On the right the Public House obtains a very prominent situation; the Landlord of which is showing his Bill to an extravagant performer that his credit is at an end: another actor overcome with inebriety, near the door, is seen lying on the ground as a disgrace to the profession; and a third, in spite of the disgusting examples before his eyes, will not be deterred from spending all his leisure hours at the tavern. The Public House is a figurative sketch of the dissipation in which too many players spend their precious time; a set of beings, not actors, who merely learn the lines of their parts without thinking study necessary to give effect to the words; more properly termed loiterers, or excressences [sic] upon the enlightened and delightful Art of Acting: the result of which is, empty pockets, debilitated constitutions; and the end of their folly marked by the attacks of the big birds (geese) driving them off the stage.

In “The Birds” of Aristophanes; a dramatic experiment. In one act, being an humble attempt to adapt the said “Birds” to this climate, by giving them new names, new feathers, new songs and new tales (London – 1846), the British playwright and herald James Robinson Planché (1796-1880) makes the chorus say the following of the author:

Trying to catch the Birds of Aristophanes
For your diversion. If, alas! he fails
In putting attic salt upon their tails,
He knows against him will be turned the laugh,
For you are not birds to be caught with chaff,
So hear him patiently before you frown,
Nor let his first shot bring the “Big Bird” down.

The phrases could have positive connotations, as explained in Theatrical slang, published in The Graphic (London) of 10th April 1886:

To be “goosed,” or, as it is sometimes phrased, to “get the big bird,” is occasionally a compliment to the actor’s power of representing villainy, but more often is disagreeably suggestive of a failure to please.

This was confirmed by the British author James Redding Ware (1832-circa 1909) in Passing English of the Victorian era (London – 1909):

– Big Bird (Theatrical). A hissing figurative reference to the goose—a figure in itself for hissing; e.g., ‘Tom had the big bird last night, and he is in bed this morning.’ However, this phrase sometimes has another meaning. At the Britannia Theatre the audiences began (about 1860) to compliment the accomplished villainy of the stage-villain by politely hissing him at the end of one act, to prove how well he had played the scoundrel. This thoroughly indigenous E. London fashion came West about 1878 where it was heard, perhaps at the Princess’ for the first time. It has since spread, notoriously to the Adelphi (when still a dramatic house) and Drury Lane; but it has never become a W. London institution. In the E., if the villain did not get the ‘big bird’, he would consider that he was not on a par with Titus, and that he had lost his day, or rather evening, and he might fear for the renewal of his engagement.

Ware also gave the following definitions and example:

– Bird (Theatrical). Hissing—the bird being the goose, whose general statements are of a depreciatory character.
“Professor Grant, Q.C., had both ‘the bird’ and ‘the needle’ at the Royal on Monday.”—The Age, January 1884.
– Needle (Tailors’). Got the needle, i.e., irritated, as when the needle runs into a finger. Has spread generally over working classes, who have accepted the graphic nature of the phrase.

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