‘a bird cannot fly on one wing’: meaning and origin

Of American-English origin, the jocular phrase a bird cannot fly on one wing, also a bird cannot fly with one wing, is used to justify taking another alcoholic drink.

For example, this advertisement was published in The Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba) of Friday 21st February 1941:

FIRST, IT’S “THE FIRST TODAY.” Then it’s “a bird can’t fly on one wing.” Then it’s “one for the road.” Then it’s a “night cap” . . . and then “There’s just time for one more.” Yes, you know what we’re talking about all right. Next day, somehow, you don’t feel too spry. Food has just got to be good to whet your appetite. That’s why we say “the New Corona Cafe for good food.” 674 Main st. (near Royal Alexandra Hotel).

In Vodka Bouts Latest Peril of the War, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Monday 7th July 1941, Henry McLemore derived a noun from the phrase:

The English probably are just sipping their vodka, but Americans are not sippers. We are a nation of belters, sluggers, bottoms-uppers, down-the-hatchers, and you-can’t-fly-on-one-wingers. When we start toasting Moscow with vodka, she’ll stay toasted.
There is nothing I won’t do for my readers. In the cause of reportorial accuracy, I went out and bought a bottle of vodka and, despite a morning-long leaning toward temperance, tried it out.
The first drink of it is like the final examination at a school of sword-swallowing.

The earliest occurrence of a bird cannot fly with one wing that I have found is from The Modern Fable of the periodical Souse, the never-again Feeling, and the Ride on the Sprinkling Cart, by the U.S. author and columnist George Ade (1866-1944), published in several U.S. newspapers on Saturday 13th September 1902—for example in The Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois):

Once there was an Indian who had a Way of putting on all his Feathers and breaking out of the Reservation.
For three Weeks at a Stretch he gave a Correct Imitation of the Shining Light who passes the Basket and superintends the Repairs on the Parsonage. He was entitled to a Mark of 100 for Deportment. With his Meals he drank a little Polly. After Dinner he smoked one Perfecto and then, when he had put in a frolicsome Hour or so with the North American Review, he crawled into the Hay at 9:30 P. M.
At last he accumulated a Sense of Virtue that was hard to carry around. He was proud of himself when he counted up the number of days during which he had stuck to the Straight and Narrow. It seemed to him that he deserved a Reward. So he decided to buy himself a little Present, something costing about 15 cents. He picked out a First-Class Place where they had Electric Fans and Pictures by the Old Masters. He poured out a Workingman’s Size—the kind that makes the Barkeep stop wiping up and look unfriendly for a Moment or two.
Then he remembered that a Bird cannot fly with one Wing, so he gently raised the Index Finger and gave the Prescription Clerk a Look, which in the Sign Language means “Repeat the Dose.”
It is a Historical Fact that when a Man falls backward from the Water Wagon he always lands in a Crowd. The full Stage Setting, the Light Effects and the Red Fire were all ready to make it a Spectacular Affair. Just after he had moved away No. 2 and had stopped worrying about the Winter’s Coal he began to meet Friends who were dying of Thirst. Then the atmosphere began to be curdled with High Balls and Plymouth Sours and Mint Smashes, and he was telling a Shoe Drummer that a lot of People who had been knocking him would probably be working for him before the Year was out.
Then he found himself in a four-oared Cablet and the Sea became very Rough. There was something out of Whack with the Steering Gear, for instead of bringing up at his Boarding House he found himself at another Rum Parlor. The Man who owned the Place had lost the Key and could not lock up. Here he met several Delegates to a State Convention of a Fraternal Order having for its Purpose the uplifting of Mankind. They wore Blue Badges and were fighting to get their Money into the Cash Register. In a little while he and a red-headed Delegate were up by the Cigar Counter singing “How can I bear to leave thee?” He put in an Application for Membership and then the next Picture that came out of the Fog was a Chop Suey Restaurant and everybody breaking Dishes.
Soon after the Lights went out and when he came back to Earth he was lying the wrong way of his Bed with Blue Badges all over him trying to swallow a Bath Towel, which he afterward discovered was his Tongue. By getting a Leverage under his Head he managed to pry it up and then he sat on the edge of the Bed and called himself Names. He had nothing left over except the Cards given to him by the Brothers from up State somewhere. He had a dim and sneaking Recollection that he had given his address and Phone Number to the whole Tribe and begged them to look him up.
“Not any more in Mine,” said he, as he held a Towel under the Faucet. “Not for all Morgan’s would I look at any more of that Essence of Trouble. I wonder if I’ll live through the Morning?”
That Day he lived on Bromo and Ice and the only Satisfaction this Life offered was the Fact that he was a Reformed Man.
On the Second Day he could look at Solid Food without having a Spasm. His Hair stopped pulling and he began to speak to the People he met. When asked to step out for a little while he lost his Temper and made a little Talk on the Subject, proving conclusively that there was nothing in it.
As he walked homeward in the Dusk he passed the Clubs and Cafes where those who Drank were rounding up and he felt sorry for them.
“Why can’t they pass it up the same as I do?” he asked himself. “Ah, if only they knew how much more Fun it is to be Respectable!”
It was an actual Mystery to him that any one could dally with a Dry Martini while there was a Hydrant on every Corner.
On the third Day he was cracking his Whip and begging people to get up on the Wagon with him. And he said it was a Queer Thing, but he couldn’t bear the Sight of it.
While on the fourth Evening he confessed to some nice People he met at a Church Social that at one time he had allowed himself to be coaxed into taking an occasional Nip but he reasoned it all out and decided it was a Bad Thing and simply Chopped it right off. They told him it was wonderful how much Will Power he had and asked him if he ever felt the Old Craving coming back on him and he said he could see it splashing all around him and not have the faintest Desire to Dip in.
He was so stuck on himself that he went around to call on all his Friends who kept it on the Table so that he could wave it to one side and tell how he despised it. He sat there and pitied those who were inhaling it. Every Morning when he arose he would throw kisses to himself in the Glass and exclaim: “Aha! The Head as clear as a Bell this A. M. I’ll bet I’m the cleanest and nicest Young Fellow in this Town. Any Girl that picks out a Sober and Steady man such as I am will certainly be showing good Judgment.”
As Narrated at the Beginning, for three weeks he worked hard at the Job of being an Abstainer. And at last he accumulated a Sense of Virtue that weighed over 200 Pounds. He knew that he was entitled to a Reward, so he decided to buy himself a little Present. Just a wee Reminder of by-gone Days and then back to Sarsaparilla. But he fell into a Crowd. There was another State Convention. It had been arranged for him so that he could get a Fresh Start.
MORAL: Life is a Series of Relapses and Recoveries.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from a paragraph published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 16th November 1902:

Marshall P. Wilder declares that when a certain Irishman famed for hard drinking was asked why he did not take just one drink each day and let it go at that, he answered: “Shure what good would wan be? A bird can’t fly with one wing.”

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGY

 

It has been erroneously said that the phrase arose from the stories of aircraft returning on one wing from missions during the Second World War.

However, it seems that aviators did seize upon the phrase during that period—as exemplified by the following is from The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 22nd June 1941:

Aviators have a saying that “you can’t fly with one wing”—often used to advantage around a bar.

And the following is from The Common Round, by J. Butterfield, published in The Vancouver Daily Province (Vancouver, British Columbia) of Wednesday 16th July 1941:

This is a beautiful and elastic language. You can do almost anything you like with it. I have a letter from a young friend who is flying for England in the wars and who—being of a literary turn—keeps an ear open for curiosities of diction and oddities of expression.
He says a bunch of the boys in the mess were having a stirrup-cup and, just as they were about to leave upon their various occasions, one of them picked up his glass and said:
“Well, let us make a bird not fly on one wing.”
It is perfect. It is so much better than the stereotyped expression: “Well, a bird can’t fly on one wing.” That is flannelly and vague. The air force is a very positive and forthright force; it doesn’t deal in negotiations and suppositions. It says definitely “let us make . . .”
A great language—and a fine idea.

 

IN IRISH ENGLISH

 

The Irish-English phrase is a bird never flew on one wing.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from Irish Miles (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1947), by the Irish author Frank O’Connor (Michael Francis O’Donovan – 1903-1966)—as quoted by Elizabeth Bowen in the review of this book, published in The Tatler and Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 2nd July 1947:

“When the day is fine they have a good pilgrimage, and when the day is wet, they haven’t a good pilgrimage.”
“I dare say,” said Willie.
“That’s the way I looks at it, anyway, Willie. ’Tis only a day’s outing, and what the hell more is anything else?”
“You’ll have another drink,” said Willie, having digested this piece of philosophy.
“I might as well, Willie, I might as well. A bird never flew on one wing.”

The second-earliest occurrence of a bird never flew on one wing that I have found is from the review by Philip Rooney of Half in Earnest (Dublin: The Talbot Press Limited, 1949), by the Irish novelist, short-story writer and humourist John Desmond Sheridan (1903-1980)—review published in several Irish newspapers on Saturday 8th January 1949, for example in The Wicklow People (Wicklow, County Wicklow):

With Sheridan the importance of being earnest is nicely graded. He can approach with perfect gravity and proper awe the study of that gravest of all grave figures, “The Man With A Pint,” and compose a picture of ritual, tradition and wholehearted devotion to the business in hand out of no more than a glowing pipe, two flowing pints, and the man who handles them—for Sheridan, I am glad to report, is a firm believer in the axiom that a bird never flew on one wing.

A Bird Never Flew On One Wing (1947) is the title of a painting by the Irish artist Harry Aaron Kernoff (1900-1974). This reproduction is from The toast of the auction house, by Sarah Stack, published in the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin) of Monday 26th May 2008:

'A Bird Never Flew On One Wing' - Harry Kernoff - Irish Independent (Dublin) - 26 May 2008

A painting paying homage to Dublin’s pubs in the 1940s is to go up for auction this week.
A Bird Never Flew On One Wing’, which hung in O’Brien’s Pub, on Upper Leeson Street, for more than 30 years, is expected to fetch up to €120,000. Depicting two archetypal Dublin characters, the painting features the names of more than 50 Dublin pubs. The work by Harry Kernoff will go under the hammer at Adam’s Important Irish Art Sale on Wednesday. David Britton, of Adam’s, said the name of O’Briens [sic], the pub where the painting has been hanging in the back bar, was only recently added by the artist.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.