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Box of birds

Q From Mike Crowl, New Zealand: I was discussing the expression a box of birds with a friend and we wondered about its origins. I couldn’t see any reference to it when searching the site, so I wondered if you’ve ever mentioned it in your weekly posts. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s often used as a way of saying you’re doing well: “I’m feeling like a box of birds.”

A It’s a curious idiom, a common New Zealandism that’s also found in Australia, though much less often. You prompted a vague memory that I’d come across it somewhere before, but it took a few minutes to discover that it must have been in one of the Inspector Alleyn detective stories of the New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh:

“He can answer questions, can’t you, Bellairs?”
”I’m fine,” Breezy rejoined dreamily. “Box of birds.”

A Wreath for Rivera, by Ngaio Marsh, 1949.

This is an earlier example:

At a gathering of his friends recently one insisted on taking a [stimulant] pill to discover its effects. For the remainder of the evening he was “the life of the party,” “a ball of muscle,” “a box of birds,” and everything else synonymous with pep and vitality, according to the soldier.

Auckland Star, 25 Sep. 1941.

The story was about a soldier who had been invalided out after the battle of Crete. We may link this with an article in the Sunday Mail of Brisbane in July 1942, which recorded to feel like a box of birds as Second World War slang of the Australian Navy. These seem to suggest that it was slang of the armed forces that survived in New Zealand after the war but failed to be adopted to a significant extent in Australia. However, the first known use in print is this, only six months after the war began:

I have lately seen an actual “Box of Birds.” The phrase I have always heard applied to a feeling of well-being, pep, or happiness; but now I know that is wrong. The box — or rather boxes — of birds I saw were some dozen or more shallow wooden trays, with small-meshed wire-netting tops, packed with poor miserable bedraggled sparrows, some dead, some on their backs with legs in the air dying, and others huddled together for warmth. They had been trapped for subsequent release as live targets for a gun shoot. Now when answering my inquiry “How are you?” I get “A box of birds” I see red.

Evening Post (Wellington), 23 Apr. 1940.

“The phrase I have always heard” strongly suggests that it predates wartime by a significant period. It could have been services slang from the interwar period, or — more probably in my view — it was a pre-war New Zealand idiom that was borrowed by Australian servicemen through contact with New Zealanders during the war.

The origin is almost certainly a play on chirpy, meaning cheerful or lively, and it’s linked to chirpy as a bird, an expression of carefree happiness common in the nineteenth century. Box of birds is also often to be found much earlier, but solely in the literal sense of a box containing, for example, racing pigeons or chickens. We might guess the two were stuck together to make chirpy as a box of birds as a superlative that was later truncated into the idiom. But no trace exists in the record before the short form appeared.

It’s likely it wasn’t needed: chirpy is found long before chirpy as a bird. New Zealanders do very occasionally use chirpy as a box of birds but — like chirpy as a bird — it appears in the written record more recently than box of birds.

Whatever its origins and history, it has humorously evolved: box of fluffies, box of fluffy chooks, box of budgies and particularly box of fluffy ducks, are all ways to say that you’re happy or that everything is going well.

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