Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, today’s post finds me in an awkward situation. I’m obliged to admit an opinion I’ve expressed earlier wasn’t, in fact, a smart one. So, in typical linguistic mystic style, I’ll couch it in a brief discussion of a delightful English idiom (an idiom is a set phrase with a certain meaning which might not be obvious from the words themselves). Today’s utterly applicable idiom is “To Eat Crow”.

For those unfamiliar with the expression, “To Eat Crow” (or “eating crow”) is an American English expression which refers to humbling yourself by admitting that a previously (and often strongly) stated opinion was wrong or incorrect. It’s roughly equivalent to the British expression “to eat humble pie” (colorfully discussed here). Now, here’s an example from this very blog to better show you the meaning.

A Brilliant Example of Crow Consumption

A few weeks ago, in my post “A Conditional Surrender”, I said the following:

I still don’t care for the Intel Chips, and would still love nothing more than a new line of PPC Macs, produced by Apple Computers, which would ideally be split off from Apple Music Sales™.


6) I will be allowed to maintain my prior sentiments that iTunes, Spotlight, iChat, and, most importantly, the Intel Switch, suck.

Why am I eating crow, you ask? Well… I’m currently writing this post from an Intel Mac (MacBook Pro), and quite frankly, it’s a wonderful machine.

Recently, our family business lost one of its laptop computers, the poor old Powerbook was cracked in half in a terrible stroller-folding accident. Because of this, I was given the opportunity to upgrade my machine and pass my old one down to replace the less-used machine. After doing some research, I realized that, even though the soul might be different, the Intel Macs have a lot going for them in terms of specs.

So, I upgraded to a 17” MacBook Pro, and have been very impressed. I’ve only run into a few bugs with the Intel software. (One is worth mentioning here: Praat’s amplitude bars don’t work during recording, but it still records. It’s a known issue in the Intel version, and the creator is working to fix it as soon as he can.) The performance gain is huge, and the software (front row and photo booth) is slick. The MagSafe adapter alone is worth the price of admission. Here’s the part where I eat crow: The Intel switch might not have been such a bad idea after all. It gets us better specs, more efficiency, and a whole new set of chip options. Yeah, the transition might have cost a little of the computer’s essence, but given the performance I’ve seen, it’s worth it. If you’ve got the cash to do so, upgrading to a MacBook Pro is definitely worth it. I was wrong, and you can disregard my previous knocks on the Intel Macs. (Note, however, that the iTunes Music Store still sucks. That’s not gonna change any time soon.)

How about the Idiom?

So, now that I’ve eaten my share of crow (purely for linguistic benefit, mind you), let’s discuss this beautiful idiom. Another wonderful example of conventional usage comes from a pet project of mine, the EnronSent Corpus:

enronsent24:33788:I’m back in the office today. Well I see you have to eat crow! I didn’t get a chance to watch the game but I saw CU play Kansas St. and CU looked good. I even think CU has a good chance of beating UT in Austin this weekend.

So, it’s mainstream enough to have been used in the emails of Enron employees. The next question, of course, it where the idiom came from. This article explains the origins as follows:

The origin seems fairly obvious: the meat of the crow, being a carnivore, is presumably rank and extremely distasteful, and the experience is easily equated to the mental anguish of being forced to admit one’s fallibility.

The author also gives a very inventive folk etymology (a story about the origin of a word created by people at large, which is usually just as colorful as it is wrong) for the expression involving two officers in the war of 1812, but then points out that the expression didn’t show up until the 1850’s, and even then, was in the form “to eat boiled crow”.

Wikipedia comes up with another wonderful etymology (explanation of the word’s origin) for the term:

Another possible connection comes from a short story by Rudyard Kipling. In his story ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’ Morrowbie Jukes falls into a place from which he cannot escape. Another man trapped there catches wild crows and eats them, but Morrowbie in his pride declares, ‘I shall never eat crow!’ After days of nothing to eat, his hunger and desperation finally forces him to do what he swore he would never do - literally eat crow.

However, I’m tempted to say that this is another folk etymology. If the first article is to be trusted, the expression first showed up in the 1850’s, and Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865. Unless he had a penchant for prenatal storytelling, the expression was likely not coined by him, although he may well have written it into a story.

Interestingly, my electronic etymology dictionary mentions the existence of a “Walter Etecroue” in the 1361 calendar of letter books of London. It also dates the expression’s first appearances to 1877 (when Rudyard Kipling was 12), so the Kipling hypothesis is still doubtful.

So, really, like so many other expressions and words, the origins of this idiom are lost. However, it’s still a great expression. Recanting a badly thought out belief is never pleasant for anybody, but I should really be more cautious then I am. I’m a vegetarian, and it wouldn’t do to be eating crow often. I wonder if Soy Crows count…

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