origin of ‘to eat crow’ (to suffer humiliation)

The American-English phrase to eat crow means to be forced to do something humiliating—synonym: to eat humble pie.

I have discovered that to eat crow originated in a story that first appeared in 1850 and became so popular that it was regularly reprinted in various versions and various newspapers for over two decades.

The earliest occurrence of this story that I have found is from the Buffalo Daily Courier (Buffalo, New York) of Wednesday 18th September 1850:

to eat crow - Buffalo Daily Courier (New York) - 18 September 1850

Lake Mahopack has been crowded so this summer, that the farm-houses about it are filled with visitors. One of the worthy farmers in the vicinity had been worried to death by his visitors. They found fault with the food. This was bad and that was bad; there was no way of pleasing them.
“Darn it, what a fuss; I cant [misprint for can] eat anything,” said Isaac.
“Can you eat crow,” said one of his young boarders.
“Yes, I kin eat crow.”
“Bet you a hat,” said his guest.
The bet was made, a crow caught and nicely roasted, but before serving up, they contrived to season it with a good dose of Scotch snuff.
Isaac sat down to the crow. He took a good bite, and began to chew away. “Yes,” he said “I kin eat crow (another bite and an awful face,) I kin eat crow (Symptoms of nausea.) I kin eat crow, but I’ll be darned if I hanker arter [= after] it.”—Isaac bolted.

The earliest allusion to this story that I have found is political; on Tuesday 3rd November 1857, The Washington Union (Washington, D.C.) published a correspondence from New York reporting that, on 28th October, during a meeting of the Kings County Association, “composed of all the active democrats in the county”, a certain Matthew Hale Smith had declared:

The response of the people to the election and acts of President Buchanan¹ have [sic] been emphatic. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and Connecticut teach that the people believe this to be a nation for white men; that they wish the negro well, but are not quite ready to give their daughters in marriage to them, nor send them cards of invitation to each levee. Our people can endure occasionally the rule of black republicanism²; but a small dose is usually enough. They are like an old hunter at Shoal Water bay. He was found one day dining on a roasted crow; when asked if he was fond of crow, said, “I ken eat crow, but hang me if I hanker arter it.”

¹ James Buchanan (1791-1868), Democratic statesman, 15th president of the United States (1857-61)
² The term Black Republican originated as a pejorative appellation condemning the Republican Party as too favourable to the interests of slaves and hostile to the interests of slave-owners.

The following paragraph from The Nashville Daily Union (Nashville, Tennessee) of Wednesday 2nd March 1864 shows how the reference to the well-known story came to express humiliation:

A number of rebels come to Nashville daily and take the oath of amnesty. Some of them take it with “wry faces.” The fact is, they are like the fellow that, on a wager, eat the crow. They can “eat crow; but d—d if they have a hankering for it!”

I have found an early instance of to eat crow in its current sense and without explicit reference to the famous story in a Republican newspaper, the Alabama State Journal (Montgomery, Alabama) of Saturday 26th February 1870, which criticised Negro Suffrage in Tennessee, an article published in the Mail, a Democratic newspaper:

We advise every Republican leader to clip this morceau and file for reference. It is simon pure Democratic doctrine. It lets out the whole volume of Democratic hate of the negro, and the determination of that party to reduce him to a worse and lower condition of life than slavery imposed.
[…]
The Mail is candid, however—it is Democratic. Democrats will “recognize negro suffrage” so long as they are “compelled by force.” They may eat crow, but they never will like it.

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGY

 

It has been erroneously said that in the phrase to eat crow, crow is a rare word denoting the mesentery of an animal.

Those who have put forward this folk etymology assume that to eat crow is an Americanisation of to eat humble pie, so that they have desperately tried to find an equivalent of umbles, a word denoting the edible inward parts of an animal, usually of a deer, from the fact that humble pie alludes to umble pie, that is, a pie made with umbles.

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