Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Games of "Chicken," from Hot Rodders to Politicians

With the government shutdown over and the default crisis averted, what many commentators called a "game of chicken" has finally ended on Capitol Hill. In my latest column for the Wall Street Journal, I take a look at how political stare-downs earned this appellation, and how chickens became animalistic symbols of cowardice in the first place.

Jonathon Green, author of the magisterial three-volume Green's Dictionary of Slang, recently gave a nice historical overview of the cowardly connotations of chicken on Quora:

The first example we have of chicken meaning a coward comes in 1600. It runs thus:

1600 W. Kemp Nine Days' Wonder: It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! a hebber de hoy!, a chicken! a squib.

The equation stuck. Typically here:

1844 Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit: Why, what a chicken you are! You are not afraid of being robbed, are you?

From a coward one moves on to a weak or naïve person.

1794 W. Godwin Caleb Williams: You are not such a chicken as to suppose, if so be as you are innocent, that that will make your game altogether sure.

Though the weak-willed meaning survived in compounds like chicken-hearted and chicken-livered, standalone chicken (as a noun or adjective) did not become a reliable stand-in for cowardice until the 20th century, in streetwise American slang. For the adjective, Green points to James T. Farrell's 1935 novel Judgement Day, which takes place in the 1920s. The protagonist, Studs Lonigan, says, "He was the skinny, dark-haired punk around the corner who was so chicken, wasn't he."

Green also notes the use of "chicken fight" in 1940:
1940 I. Shaw 'Borough of Cemeteries' in Sailor Off The Bremen Stories: 'Get into yer cab, Angelo. I'll drive mine, we'll have a chicken fight.' [...] The two cars spurted at each other, head-on. As they hit, glass broke and a fender flew off and the cars skidded wildly.

While today most people would think of a chicken fight as a game played in a pool with teams consisting of one person on another's shoulders, the automotive battle described here is what would soon become known as a "game of chicken," or simply "playing chicken." The earliest example I found for "game of chicken" comes from a photo essay in the Nov. 7, 1949 issue of Life, "The 'Hot-Rod' Problem: Teen-Agers Organize to Experiment with Mechanized Suicide." Two "chicken" games are described in photo captions:

A game of "chicken" is re-enacted by six youngsters in Los Angeles. In this pastime the driver accelerates his car to a speed of 60 or 70 mph, then suddenly takes his hands off the wheel. The first person who loses his nerve and grabs the wheel or touches the brake is "chicken," a fate sometimes considered worse than living to an old age.

Another variety of "chicken" is played in two cars. As vehicles approach, each driver keeps his left front wheel on the white center stripe in road. One who finally decides to pull over is, of course, "chicken."

The latter version, with two cars speeding toward each other on a narrow roadway, is the one that most people think about when they hear "game of chicken." In the 1955 movie "Rebel Without a Cause," the game is given heightened drama by having the two cars racing toward a cliff, with the "chicken" being the one to bail out of his car first. Jim Stark, played by James Dean, hates to be called "chicken," and so he is taunted into participating in a "chickie run" with a bully named Buzz.

Depictions of games of chicken, whether in newspaper accounts of juvenile delinquency or movies like "Rebel Without a Cause," made the expression so well-known in the '50s that it became an apt Cold War metaphor for the perilous nuclear buildup between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This confrontation was also dubbed brinkmanship (or brinksmanship), as Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg explained in a New York Times op/ed column a decade ago:

The word has bipartisan origins. John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, used the expression "brink of war" in a January 1956 Life magazine interview, not long after the United States had come close to going to war with Communist China over the offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu.

"The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art," Dulles said. "If you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost... We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face."

But it was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, who completed the term as "brinkmanship." In a speech in Hartford a few weeks after the Life article appeared, he reproached Dulles for "boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss." (The coinage has been credited to Stevenson's speechwriter, James C. Thompson.)

Brinkmanship and game of chicken became joined in the popular imagination, and, as Nunberg observes, "the fortunes of both expressions were helped along when they were adopted by policy theorists developing approaches to conflict resolution based on the mathematics of game theory." Now that the Cold War has passed, however, we have transferred the expressions to political standoffs on the domestic front. And given how polarized the sides were during the shutdown, I expect we'll be hearing about more games of chicken in the future.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.