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Chickens coming home to roost

Q From Judge George H Foster, Jr, Phoenix, Arizona: Can you explain the genesis of the phrase chickens coming home to roost?

A As a proverbial expression it’s half a millennium old.

The older fuller form was curses are like chickens; they always come home to roost, meaning that your offensive words or actions are likely at some point to rebound on you. The idea goes back to Chaucer, though he expressed it rather differently in The Parson’s Tale, around 1390, writing that curses are like “a bird that returns again to his own nest”.

Various versions are recorded down the years, but chickens appeared on the scene only in the nineteenth century, in Robert Southey’s oriental epic poem The Curse of Kehama of 1810. The image of farm chickens going out to forage during the day but coming back to the safety of the hen-house at dusk would have been familiar to his readers. It’s easy to find examples from then on, such as the one in Roughing it in the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, by Susanna Moodie, of 1852: “The next time the old woman commences her reprobate conduct, tell her to hold her tongue, and mind her own business, for curses, like chickens, come home to roost.” That form is still common, mainly in North America.

During the nineteenth century, the proverb was abbreviated to its modern form. An early example was in the Wisconsin Patriot on 10 November 1855: “Barstow has always been a belter, and he need not complain to find his chickens coming home to roost.”

You can tell the expression had become widely known by the middle of the nineteenth century because it was abbreviated still further into the elliptical home to roost. James Russell Lowell wrote in 1870, “All our mistakes sooner or later surely come home to roost.” Sometimes this could lead to weird images, as in Mr Punch’s History of the Great War of 1919, in which a character claims that a man’s “wild oats are coming home to roost”. Other forms are known, such as curses come home to roost, which is in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

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Page created 10 May 2008