Monday, March 7, 2016

Perching Birds and Nudity - the Naked Truth about "as Naked as a Jaybird"

(CNN)There he was, the leader of the free world, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, aboard Air Force One standing in front of reporters, naked as a jaybird.

To be fair, it was a hot, sunny day.

But why a jaybird?  Because his initials were, L. B.”Jay”?  – and his wife’s name was Lady-“Bird”? 

Probably not.  Early examples of the idiom, “naked as a jaybird” suggest that the idiom originally referred to the nakedness of freshly hatched birds.

Unfledged Birds

“As naked as a Jaybird” is an American idiom that means essentially the same as, “as naked as a newborn baby.”  But, whereas the imagery of a naked baby is straightforward and literal, the connection between nudity and birds is less obvious.  Jaybirds never wear clothes, although their feathers keep them from appearing completely naked. 

The etymology of the idiom has long been up for debate.[i]  The Word Detective speculated[ii] that it may be related to the word, “Jay,” meaning a rube or country bumpkin – a word now best known as part of “jaywalker.”  The word, “Jay,” however, may be related to Aesop’s proverbial (or should that be fabulous) Jay, who dressed himself up in peacock’s feathers; only to learn that he was still just a Jay underneath (but that’s a different story altogether - see my post, Jayhawkers and Jaywalkers).

Christine Ammer, the editor of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms and Cool Cats, Top Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions, speculated that the idiom referred to the nearly featherless state of an unfledged Jay.  Newly hatched perching birds (including jays) have almost no down.  Early examples of the idiom, and its British precursor, “naked as a robin” (also a perching bird), suggest that Christine Ammer’s instincts were correct.[iii]

The second earliest example[iv] of “naked as a robin” that I could find is from a debate about taxation and payment of the national debt:

If Sir Thomas adhere to his doctrine, and if that doctrine be acted upon, he will have the coat taken off his back, and will be left as naked as a robin two hours old; and I shall see him in a plight more wretched even than that of any of those who are now, as he, I dare say, sincerely professes, objects of his commiseration.

Cobbett’s Weekly Register (London), Volume 58, Number 6, May 6, 1826, column 354.

Newly Hatched Robin.
The earliest example of “naked as a Jay bird” that I found is from an open letter to the thief who stole Malcolm D. Johnson’s pants; it was published under the cryptic headline, “Bolifuqua Cunneya”:

Steal Not, is an express prohibition contained in the revealed law of God, and D—d be he who disregards it – such an one is the abhorred of man, and the accursed of God. . . .

“He that steals my purse steals trash,” but he that filched from me my breeches, robbed me of that which may have enriched him; but which left me as naked as an unfledged Jay bird.

Lexington Union (Lexington, Mississippi), March 13, 1841, page 3.

Another turn-of-phrase from about the same time supports the freshly-hatched theory:

He spoke further, and from behind a screen of dried reeds out creeped a diminutive creature with a huge head, having the form of a misshapen human being – but black as ebony and, with the exception of a sheepskin, round its loins, as naked as a new hatched raven.

Charles White, The Cashmere Shawl, An Eastern Fiction, Volume 1, London, H. Colburn, 1840.  

Newly Hatched Raven.

As early as 1822, unfledged birds of unspecified species were paragons of nakedness:

[A]fter having passed through a country diversified with hedges bare, ditches frozen over, woods as naked as an unfledged bird, with here and there a few of the feathered tribe hopping on the uninviting branches -- . . . we arrived safe at the mansion of Squire Potter.

“A Christmas Visit,” The Manchester Iris, Volume 1, Number 39, October 26, 1822, page 306 (Thank you Garson O'Toole for alerting me to this citation). 

The expression, “naked as an unfledged bird,” appears in print a couple more times; the latest in the 1870s.
Both American and British writers of the period played variations on the newborn theme; further supporting the notion: “naked as a new-born babe” (1839),[v] “naked as a new doll” (1851),[vi] “naked as a new-born devil” (1844),[vii] “naked as a new-made mast” (1864).[viii]

Birds, babies, dolls and devils were not the only things to be metaphorically naked.  Poor people who can't afford clothes might also be naked:

If the constitutional bounds in either case are overleaped, what assurance have the people that their liberties and reserved rights may not be imperceptibly frittered away and swallowed up by the Governments created originally for their protection, and they stripped naked as a Danish boor or a Russian serf, especially if the United States may tax them, and the States may tax them, when neither tax is to be levied for either national or State purposes.

Gales & Seaton’s Register of Debates in [the United States’] Congress, House of Representatives, September 20, 1837, page 689.

To me, no season of the year is so disagreeable as the moment when a glaring spring sunshine makes one pant after the shade and refreshment of verdure, while the branches are still as naked as an Irish beggar.

Catherine Gore, Cecil, a Peer: a Sequel to Cecil, or, The Adventure of a Coxcomb, London, T. and W. Boone, 1841, page 202. 

Most of these examples appear to be one-off turns of phrase, and not to have achieved idiomatic status in their own right; only “naked as a jaybird” and “naked as a robin” appeared regularly in print.

“Naked as a robin” appears to have been a well-known British idiom throughout the 19th century and throughout Britain.[ix]  It was used in a magazine published in London in the 1820s, and by writers from Surrey in Kent in 1851 and from Bradford in Yorkshire in 1872.  Even Stanley’s Dr. Livingstone (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), who was from Scotland and spent much of his adult life in Africa, used the expression in his journal in 1866.[x]

I could only find only two examples of “naked as a jaybird” in print from before 1899; the second one, appropriately enough, is from a clothing advertisement from 1894:

Newberry Herald and News (South Carolina), September 12, 1894, page 2.

The phrase appears regularly, if not frequently, after 1899.  Perhaps its rise was influenced by the term "Jay" (bumpkin), which dates to the 1880s, and became increasingly common throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s. 

Bare Tailfeathers

An old cowboy, critical of fakers and counterfeits, fashioned a modified version in 1893:

 [I]f he ever ventures to show his contemptible cranium within fifty miles of a decent cow camp, he will have his humbug qualifications of cow-boy stripped from his poor worthless carcass so quickly that he would feel like a jay bird with his tail feathers gone.

Will  S. James, Cow-boy Life in Texas, or, 27 Years a Mavrick, Chicago, Donohue, Henneberry, [c1893], page 27.

Curiously, the cowboy version of 1893 bears a striking similarity to an older – MUCH older – line from a book first published in 1562; a book written by the man credited with dozens of still common expressions; “haste makes waste,” “out of sight, out of mind,” “two heads are better than one,” “have your cake and eat it too,” and “do not look a gift horse in the mouth,” among others.

John Heywood was an English writer who was born in Coventry in about 1497 and died in Belgium in 1566; he left England to avoid the consequences of the Act of Uniformity against Catholics in 1564. His Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage contains the following lines:

To discharge charge, that necessarily grew,
There was no more water than the ship drew.
Such drifts drave he, from ill to worse and
Till he was as bare as a bird’s arse.

John S. Farmer, Editor, A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage by John Heywood, London, Gibbings, 1906, Proverbs, Pt. II, Ch. VIII, page 89 (italics in the original).[xi]

Picked (Plucked) Birds

Heywood’s 1562 version and the cowboy’s 1893 version, though similar, differ in that the former implies that bird’s arses are naturally bare and the latter suggests a jaybird missing tail feathers that might otherwise be there, if they hadn’t been plucked.  The cowboy’s version may be a mash-up of “naked as a jaybird” with another naked idiom, “as naked as a picked bird”:

There he was, six miles from home, as naked as a picked bird and no way to get home without creating a riot, except by waiting until it got dark.

Samuel Oliver Young, True Stories of Olds Houston, Galveston, Texas, O. Springer, 1913, page 125.

In an ironic twist born of an iconic twister, a “dead robin” might be as “naked as a picked bird”:

A dead robin was picked up on Lafayette Park.  On one side the bird was intact.  On the other every feather was gone.    It was “naked as a picked bird,” to use a familiar expression. 

Julian Curzon, The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896, St. Louis, Cyclone Publishing Company, 1896, page

And, coming full circle, a jaybird could be picked naked:

It would not only answer as a great convenience, but would beautify and adorn that part of our town, which, at present, looks shorn of all attraction and as naked as a picked jaybird.

The Comet (Johnson City, Tennessee), March 15, 1894, page 1.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of Aesop’s fable of the Jay and the Peacock is that, “it is not only fine feathers that make fine birds;” the suggestion being that the lowly Jay was putting on airs by wearing his peacock feathers.  But now that I think about it, perhaps he needed the peacock feathers because he had been picked clean and was “as naked as a picked jaybird.”  Have we been too hard on him for all these millennia.

This topic has also been picked clean.  The idiom, “naked as a jaybird,” appears to be a shortened version of “naked as an unfledged Jay bird,” which was itself a longer version of “naked as an unfledged bird.”  The Brits followed a similar path using a robin instead.  When “unfledged” flew the coop, the original meaning was obscured.  Over time, the idiom was folded, spindled and mutilated in various riffs on the original theme, including “picked birds” and “missing tail feathers.”  In the end, however, a form of the idiom went full-circle, back to a 450-year old expression about bare bird bottoms; whether that expression was ever idiomatic or not, is another question.

The Vancouver World (British Columbia, Canada), January 7, 1910.

The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, Oklahoma), March 9, 1918, page 1.

[i] See, Michael J. Sheehan, Word Mall Blog, “Naked as a Jaybird,” July 12, 2006.
[ii] See, Evan Morris, The Word Detective, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Milton!” April 26, 2001.
[iii] Christine Ammer is not the only person to have suggested that the idiom relates to newly hatched birds. See, for example, message board.
[iv] The earliest example of “naked as a robin” I could find was also from Cobbett’s Weekly Register (Volume 42, Number 1, April 6, 1822): No; I won’t take the lease! You sha’nt give up the lease.  I’ll make you pay your rent; or, “as G—d’s  my savior” I’ll strip you as naked as a robin!
[v] Bentley’s Miscellany (New York), Volume 4, November 1839, page 494.
[vi] Albert Smith, The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole, New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1851, page 66.
[vii] Henry Cockton, The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist, London, Routledge, 1844, volume 1, page 212.
[viii] Richard Henry Horne, Prometheus, the Fire-Bringer, Edinburgh, Edmonston and Douglas, 1864, page 34. 
[ix] Several discussions online suggest that “naked as a robin” was from Shropshire. Those suggestions may have been influenced by its inclusion in Charlotte Sophia Burne’s, Shropshire FolkLore, a Sheaf of Gleanings, London, Truebner & Co., 1886, page 595.
[x] David Livingston, The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa Until His death, London, John Murray, 1874, Volume 1, Page 65, Journal entry dated June 29, 1866.
[xi] The volume published in 1906 was a reprint of an 1867 collated reprint of the 1562 and 1566 editions of the book.


  1. This is great stuff. Thank you.

  2. Thanks to you I wrote a poem and you helped:

  3. So John Heywood was 369 years old when he passed in 1866? Impressive. 😁