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?
I can’t stand that phrase when it is used as a pun. I generally will not link to an article that uses that as a headline, unless the article is really, really good.
I think the biblical origin might make sense. The passages you cite have somewhat different meanings than the English usage, though. I read them less as a dismissal than as a warning. If you have access to the OED, perhaps that might help you find the earliest English use of the phrase.
â€œThe Mets are for the birds!â€
Frankly, I think that is an insult to birds.
That’s cold, John! Wait until you see the Mets this year. They’re going to be amazing (I hope.)
As someone who is both “for the birds” and “for the METS”, I will ask it we can now explore the correlation between the “Amazin’s” and the amazing effect birds can have on some of us.
I agree with John about the biblical citations — they do not seem insulting to birds, but serve as a warning that what will be left will not feed the human transgressors, but only animals. I suspect the dismissive meaning did arise in the 20th c and does have more insulting implications as to birds’ intelligence.
Enchilada, I haven’t seen the phrase used to insult birds, but rather that which is described as “for the birds.”
Nancy, I’m sure you’ll agree that the Mets are going to have a decidedly deleterious effect on some birds this season, mainly Blue Jays and Cardinals, and perhaps some Orioles as well.
I didn’t mean to imply that it is used specifically to insult birds, but the implications are derogatory to birds, the way, e.g., calling someone a snake implies that snakes are evil.
I don’t agree with the biblical origin at all. That’s another case of shooting an arrow into the side of a barn and then drawing a bull’s eye around it.
This seems a little more likely:
My first instinct was that one who raises chickens would set aside food scraps that are not fit for human consumption for the birds.
As might find interesting to know, in German we don’t say that something is “for the birds” – you see we are really bird-freindly.. 🙂
Instead we say that something is “for the cat” meaning more or less the same as English people do by talking about birds….
I was reading a play by Aristophanes called The Birds. It struck me as the likely origin of the expression ‘for the birds’. This is when I came across your website. I notice you made mention of a possible biblical root, I will have to give that some consideration, but for now I guess my question goes unanswered.
With the biblical sense, I agree with. Do we need to know what kind of birds is going to show up? I would think it depends on what kind of bird you would be thinking about at that time when you used the expression. We can choose what bird we would like to be, an eagle, a crow, or a vulture. Following that mind set, we start acting like one.
The phrase could very well come from the Biblical citations above. The citations clearly state that ‘XYZ’ is not worthy, needed, or useful to humans but is found useful to the bird and therefore is left for the bird. It’s not necessarily insulting the bird but it is definitely drawing a line between what is acceptible and considered worthy to humankind and what birds may find worthy. Now, of course, the way we use the phrase today stretches this meaning.
I always thought saying someone was ‘for the birds’ meant they were a bit daft?! Does anyone else think that is one of the meanings?? …a bit like saying something/someone is ‘cuckoo’…i.e a light hearted way of slagging someone/something. I hadn’t realised it implies something was without value or stupid etc.!!
Maybe it’s derived from “birdbrain,” which would mean that it’s relatively recent – perhaps first used sometime during the late 1930s.
You got taste, and it shows my man.
When bread becomes stale, and no longer fit for humans…we sometimes throw it on the ground……for the birds to eat. Something that is no longer good thus becomes “for the birds.”
I love that this post is still alive as we approach 2011.
Nice work all!
I too was curious about the origin of the phrase “…For the birds.” A quick search turned up (not only this post, but) some additional info that, at the very least, I deemed worthy of sharing.
Thanks, Robo. I’m amazed at the longevity of this post as well, though the phrase persists.
This thread is for the birds. 😉
The verses from Isaiah and Jeremiah are actually clearer than you think. To be “for the birds” means to be dead meat, carrion, just plain dead. Roadkill. By extension, worthless, crappy, etc.
I actually started cracking up when i was reading this. haha perhaps im easily amused but i dont know. hahah.
I am from the future!!! It is 2014 and I still don’t know the origin of “for the birds”. I came here to find answers. “For the birds” is cool to say, but yeah it has a negative connotation (reminds me of flipping the bird, the bird is the word). I’ll take your bible explanation over some of the questionable remarks on the internet nowadays 🙂 Dude, you’re still relevant in 2014. lol.
I was looking this topic up, because I remember my mom alwsys saying, “New York is for the birds!”
Just the other day, I, without giving it much thought, used the phrase to describe an action as “crazy” or “insanely difficult”
So what KATHY said back on March 8, 2010 at 1:38 pm about being “daft” and what the author found that it was from a Hank Janson novel, meaning “crazy” I think is spot on…. not that this is the ORIGIN of the phrase, but a least points to how the phrase is still being used today.
BTW, if you’re interested in what I was referring when I said it was for the birds… I was discussing with a colleague of mine, that trying to manage a Java (the programing language) Project’s dependencies without using something like Maven or Gradle is for the birds!