The idiomatic expression “for the birds“ is common enough to crop up in everyday conversation. One hears it all the time: “This pizza is for the birds!” “The Mets are for the birds!” “Lying, fascist, ideologue politicians are for the birds!” You probably get the point. This phrase is obviously negative in connotation, meaning objectionable or worthless. But why is it bad to be for the birds anyway? Who coined the term and for how long has this designated an undesirable state?
If you’re still reading, then perhaps you share my curiosity. Regrettably, I’m short on answers. There seems to be no authoritative answer regarding the origin of this avian insult. The best source of information is a website called businessballs.com. This site’s idiom page offers the following insights:
…for the birds (also strictly for the birds) – useless, unreliable facts, unacceptable or trivial, implying that something is only for weaker, unintelligent or lesser people – American origin according to Kirkpatrick and Schwarz Dictionary of Idioms. Decharne’s Dictionary of Hipster Slang actually references a quote from the Hank Janson novel Chicago Chick 1962 – ” ‘It’s crazy man,’ I told him, ‘Real crazy. Strictly for the birds.’ ” – but doesn’t state whether this was the original usage. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870) certainly makes no mention of it which suggests it is no earlier than 20th century.
This is good stuff, but far from definitive. I will have to respectfully disagree with the author’s conclusions regarding the age of this expression. You see, since so many other sources of inspiration turned into blind alleys, I consulted that font of ancient wisdom, the most-quoted tome of all time, the Good Book itself. That’s right, I checked the Bible for the phrase “for the birds” and I think I found our answer.
Isaiah 18:4 For this is what the Lord has told me: “I will wait and watch from my place, like scorching heat produced by the sunlight, like a cloud of mist in the heat of harvest.” 18:5 For before the harvest, when the bud has sprouted, and the ripening fruit appears, he will cut off the unproductive shoots with pruning knives; he will prune the tendrils. 18:6 They will all be left for the birds of the hills and the wild animals; the birds will eat them during the summer, and all the wild animals will eat them during the winter.
Jeremiah 16:4 They will die of deadly diseases. No one will mourn for them. And they will not be buried. Their dead bodies will lie like manure spread on the ground. They will be killed in war or die of starvation. And their corpses will be food for the birds and the wild animals.
According to the Old Testament, something that is “for the birds” is roughly equivalent to an unproductive shoot or manure. Suddenly it all makes sense. One has to wonder, though… As birders, we are clearly for the birds. What does that say about us?