Posted by: Dutch | January 22, 2010

Chickens come home to roost

Meaning

Bad deeds or words return to discomfort their perpetrator.

Origin

The notion of bad deeds, specifically curses, coming back to haunt their originator is long established in the English language and was expressed in print as early as 1390, when Geoffrey Chaucer used it in The Parson’s Tale:

“And ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully retorneth agayn to hym that curseth, as a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest.”

The allusion that was usually made was to a bird returning to its nest at nightfall, which would have been a familiar one to a medieval audience. Other allusions to unwelcome returns were also made, as in the Elizabethan play The lamentable and true tragedie of Arden of Feversham, 1592:

“For curses are like arrowes shot upright, Which falling down light on the suters [shooter’s] head.”

Chickens didn’t enter the scene until the 19th century when a fuller version of the phrase was used as a motto on the title page of Robert Southey’s poem The Curse of Kehama, 1810:

“Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.”

This extended version is still in use, notably in the USA.

The notion of the evil that men create returns to their own door also exists in other cultures. Buddhists are familiar with the idea that one is punished by one’s bad deeds, not because of them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge revived the imagery of a bird returning to punish a bad deed in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798. In the poem the eponymous mariner kills an albatross, which was regarded as an omen of good luck, and is punished by his shipmates by having the bird hung around his neck:

“Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck waAh! well a-day! what evil lookss hung.”

– Special thanks to Gary Martin of the Phrase Finder

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