Monday, July 27, 2009

Chicken Talk

There has been a chicken lull in my life recently. Oh, we still HAVE a number of chickens,* but I have not been out recently to pet them and feed them scraps, observe and photograph them, or plan a life of plunder and international debauchery with them on the high seas (or, again, fields).

Instead I have been lying indoors, recovering from knee surgery, awash in a sea (or, again, a field) of narcotic pain relievers. And though I have not been able to visit the chickens, I have had ample opportunity to put in order some thoughts regarding chickens and the English language. Granted, sometimes these thoughts haven't made a lot of sense (c.f. pain relievers, narcotic; above).

English has a lot of Chicken Talk. "Nest egg," "broody," "chickens will come home to roost," "cocky," "something to crow about"... But since not many people keep chickens any more, these phrases no longer evoke the images they used to. Now that I "chill with my peeps" though, many of these old phrases now seem fresh, fascinating and funny in a way they had not been before.

For example: after a hen lays an egg, she can be incredibly noisy about her accomplishment. "i did-a-EGG! did-a-EGG! did-a-EGG!" she clamors. And when one hen starts up, the others catch the urge too: "she did-a-EGG! did-a-EGG! did-a-EGG!" They chorus and walk around and carry on together for a bit. It is so loud that it is frankly alarming, up close.

Now, the other night Amy and I were recalling something ridiculous we had experienced together, leaning on each other and laughing in front of the kitchen sink. We were not unpleasantly deprived of air, but our breathing was definitely subordinate to the laughter. Our breathing patterns--similar, but out of sync--went, "'laugh'-'laugh'-'suck in air,' 'laugh'-'laugh'-'suck in air'," repeat. (...repeat...repeat.) The drawing-in of air was louder and harsher than the breathing/laughing sounds on their way out.

It occurred to me pleasantly in the middle of this laughter that we sounded a lot like the pleased, egg-accomplishing hens. "Laugh-laugh-BREATHE, laugh-laugh-BREATHE" sounded like "did-a-EGG, did-a-EGG." And right on the heels of this realization came the twin realizations that (a) the egg noise that the hens make must be called "cackling," and (b) Amy and I were "cackling like a pair of hens."

Whoa! I never knew what 'cackling' sounded like! Even when I heard the actual sound, from the hens themselves! The word "cackle" sounds like "crackle," so I assumed that it must describe a crackly sort of laughter. I imagined it was a slightly pejorative term, relevant mainly to witches and crones. But is it instead a neutral to positive word, describing pleasant gasps of amusement, shared in company? The dictionary would tell us, probably. But in my current state the dictionary is much too far away to help us.

And that is just episode ONE of Chicken Talk, which was quite a bit longer than I thought it would be (narcotic pain relievers = trouble editing down prose? or tightly plotting a story?). So, we will end here. Vaya con pollos, chicken friends.

* n = a million

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