Crow Idioms – Eat Crow and As the Crow Flies

Eating Crow has always been a sad affair. This phrase is an American colloquial idiom, meaning humiliation by admitting wrongness or having been proven wrong after taking a strong position. Crow is presumably foul-tasting in the same way that being proven wrong might be emotionally hard to swallow.


Most of us have had to eat crow at sometime in our lives. It is a moment to grow more humble and remember our fellow humans.

But where did this come from? As a lover of crows how did they become associated with this idiom? I have found a couple of explanations.  In the end we really don’t know.

First is around 1850 a story was published about a slow-witted New York farmer and his city boarders daring him to eat a crow.

This phrase is part of a family of idioms having to do with eating and being proven incorrect, such as to “eat dirt” and to “eat your hat” (or shoe), all probably originating from “to eat one’s words”, which first appears in print in 1571 in one of John Calvin’s tracts.

Or is it similar to a British idiom to eat humble pie. Pies made from low grade meat were known to be served to those of lesser class who did not eat at the king’s/lord’s/governor’s table. Another dish likely to be served with humble pie is rook pie (rooks being closely related to crows).

Then we have this next explanation around a soldier.  According to etymologist James Rogers, eating crow became the subject of a story reported in the Atlanta Constitution in 1888, which told the tale of an American soldier in the War of 1812, who shot a crow during a ceasefire. A British officer complimented the soldier on his shooting and asked to see the gun, which when handed to him, he turned on the soldier, reprimanding him for trespassing, and forcing the soldier to eat a piece of the dead crow. However, on having the gun returned to him, the soldier promptly turned the weapon on the officer, and made him eat the rest of the crow.

Moving to a more positive Crow Idiom – “As the Crow Flies”.

Goofing around and acrobatic flying
Crow Flight

This has a simple harmless definition of just the shortest distance between two places. I have to think we all see crows fly to the roost at night and marvel how direct flying makes their route. Wiki gives us two quotes dating back to 1750s where this is mentioned:

First seen in the The Critical Review or Annals of Literature published 1758 by TG Smollet on p. 68.  He states “In our extracts from it we shall take the same liberty as in the preceding, of travelling with him as the crow flies, passing over many places, and only stopping at those which seem best to deserve our reader’s attention.”

Popular Science Monthly: 334 article “Fish out of Water” by G Allen in 1886 has the following quote. “They were traveling across-country in a beeline, thousands of them together, not at all like the helpless fish out of water of popular imagination, but as unconcernedly and naturally as if they had been accustomed to the overland route for their whole lifetimes, and were walking now on the king’s highway without let or hindrance.”

We who respect our crow brothers have to remember that mankind remembers those that are special and leave an impression on them. These two idioms are prime examples of how many do not like crows but they do respect them for their intelligence and sleek black beauty.


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