Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Naked as a Jay Bird

Q. What is the origin of the phrase "naked as a jay bird?"

A. You pose an interesting question, particularly because most experts don't have a secure answer. The real puzzle, of course, is that far from being naked, the bluejay is covered with brilliant blue and white and black feathers--a veritable riot of clothing.

Evan Morris (The Word Detective) and Christine Ammer (Cool Cats, Top Dogs, and Other Beastly Expressions) are two wordsmiths who at least tried to formulate an answer. Their speculations:

(1) In 19th century America, jay was slang for a hick, a simpleton, a gullible person. In that case, naked as a jay would refer to a completely vulnerable person, not to a bird. And we have another vestige of that meaning: to jaywalk. This referred to country bumpkins wandering around gawking at tall buildings and paying no attention to traffic signals.

(2) All perching birds, including jays, are born with hardly any down at all, making them quite helpless.

So "naked" turns out to be the easy part, expressing vulnerability. "Jay" is the problem. Human or bird? Take your pick. No one seems to know.

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