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I'm often asked a question "What is the word, bird?" by a manager of mine. I'm not sure what does it mean but I think it means "What's your last status update?" and I answer like I do have to do 1, 2, 3 ...

What does this question means in Urban American English? And does it imply anything?

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Clearly, the bird is the word. More seriously, why don't you ask your manager? –  Matt Ball Jul 16 '11 at 23:59
    
The manager might might like rhymes. Having asked 'What's the word?', he follows it with bird just because it rhymes. –  pavium Jul 17 '11 at 2:35
    
@Matt Ball I think asking him "What do you mean by this" could be understood as I am questioning his intentions, which could create an impression that I have no sense of humor if this was a joke, or an impression that I am sick of many demands if it's a strict status update, etc... –  rahmanisback Jul 18 '11 at 5:15
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"Everybody knows that the bird's the word." –  TimLymington Jul 28 '11 at 13:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I doubt the phrase means anything special. It sounds like a rhyming pun similar to "What's new, Stu?" Most likely, it is being used to ask, "How's it going?" or "What's your status?" So your guess appears correct in that regard.


"What's the word?", however, is a meaningful phrase. It asks if you have heard anything back from an earlier report, request or call.

What's the word on the shipment?

No word yet.

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I'll also say that the phrase doesn't have a widespread fixed meaning.

Based on your description, he/she is most likely making space for you to bring up anything at all you choose. If your boss has a work related question, it will be precise, directed and unambiguous.

  • The vague question transfers control over the subject of your response to you fully.
  • The rhyme is a clue that it's a less formal moment and an invitation to be creative.

What are you going to do with a vague question?

You could talk about sports, weather, a gripe, something that interests you like family or current events. If you are unsure, just answer "All's good, thanks for asking." but hours or days later turn the tables and ask the same question back.

Watch closely as your boss reacts.

I'd encourage you bring up anything that's safe and comfortable - have a little fun and see how your boss reacts. No matter what you say, within reason, it will be correct since it will after all, be... "the word, bird."

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I wouldn't recommend 'turning it around' and trying the same phrase on your boss. There can be a lot of social-psychological implications to the usage, and it might be very uncomfortable for the boss to have his words thrown back at him. –  Mitch Jul 18 '11 at 2:34
    
Do elaborate on the social-psychological implications of this usage. –  bmike Jul 26 '11 at 18:24
    
The other person may be using terms that are only appropriate for them to use for you and not the other way, for example, words that are familiar and informal from them to you but not appropriate the other direction (for example from a judge to a lawyer or parent to child). Argh... I haven't even given a real example...maybe 'bird' means to him 'an available female'. There are just so many ways this can go wrong. Whatever the example, if you don't know what it means, then reciprocating is dangerous. The reaction could easily be a very negative one. –  Mitch Jul 26 '11 at 20:05
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Or the boss likes early 60's surf music - quietube.com/v.php/http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZThquH5t0ow –  bmike Sep 16 '11 at 16:57

Depending on your manager, this could be a stock greeting phrase like "how are you?" (the person who says this does not want to know how you are) or "what's new and exciting?" or "what's up, doc?" - just things someone says when they see you. It might not even be a question. If you want to reply with a work-oriented status report, you can, but it might be optional.

To elaborate, if you're in the weekly status meeting and the manager says to someone "you're up!" the person will respond with a status report. If the manager turns to the next person and says "shake it, baby!" they will also respond with a status report. And when it's your turn and you get "what's the word, bird?" you will respond with a status report. In this context it really doesn't matter what the manager says, the default is status report. If the manager says "did Bill call you back yet?" you answer the specific question, of course.

But if you're in the hallway or the elevator or the parking lot or eating your lunch, and your manager sees you and says "what's the word, bird?" it's really more of a "hey how are ya" greeting that doesn't require a true response. You can say something like "Having a great day!" or "Hot enough for ya?" or "things are looking great on the ABC project - should go live this week!". If things are not great you could say "glad I bumped into you, can we talk about the ABC project today?" (which might turn into right now.)

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