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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Blogger Ann said...

Thank you for the insight to "Naked as a Jay Bird" . I have heard the saying for years but never knew its origin.

9:08 PM  
Blogger jt said...

This is what I was told by a friend who is a poet, writer, and artist.

The flat part of a sailing vessel is the jay. Girls, birds as the british call them, would lie on the jay and sun in the nude....thus, "Naked as a Jay Bird".

Sounds good to me.


2:09 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

I know that the Brits called girls birds in the Twiggy era, but naked as a jaybird goes back decades before that, so that can't be the origin.
The first written instance is 1931, American Mercury Magazine.

8:56 PM  
Anonymous Elllen said...

Jay bird could also stand for Jbird or Jail bird

2:00 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

Except that it was never spelled "jail" in this phrase.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The expression is being applied here in regards to entirely the wrong bird.

Perhaps this will help you make more sense of the expression.
It is related to a Popinjay or Popagie which are old names that were once used for parrots. Parrots frequently pluck themselves naked when under stress.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you google jay bird you will see another bird, an English type. It is a naked colour with colour on the ends of its wings..the literal sense of the's been looked into a bit too deeply I think and the real meanings been overlooked

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eurasian Jay, the original 'jay' after which all others are named is "nude" colored on the body whereas his wings and tail are colored.

9:04 AM  

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