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Just as the title says — where, and how, did the phrase 'stone the crows' originate?

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I bet this book has a good answer. –  Hugo May 4 '12 at 18:46
I've never heard it used in America (or in any American literature for that matter, in which I'm reasonably well-read). The only place I've encountered it is in an Australian novel written in the 1970s but set in 1900. –  Tess Aug 21 '12 at 19:17
I can set that back a couple of decades: When Walt Kelly's Pogo and his friends went to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 they encountered a kangaroo named Basher who was given to saying "stone the crows". –  StoneyB Aug 21 '12 at 23:08
@Tess Andrew Lloyd-Webber used it in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as well, where it's the title of one of the songs. (“Pharaoh said, »Well, stone the crows, this Joseph is a clever kid / Who'd have thought that 14 cows could mean the things he said they did«”.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 6 at 11:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Etymonline offers no insight. The British National Corpus has three cites from 1989, 1991, and 1992. The Corpus of Historical American English has two cites, from 1981 and 1986. Wiktionary doesn't say anything about etymology, but marks the phrase as UK, Australian, and has a much older cite from Rose Of Spadgers by C. J. Dennis, 1924. The most extensive discussion I have found so far is over at The Phrase Finder:

There have been a few attempts to explain the origin of this odd phrase. [...] The more prosaic suggestion — that it alludes to the practise of throwing stones at crows — is much more likely.

I've found mid-20th century references from England that describe it as an Americanism and American newspaper articles that call it 'an old English phrase'. The dates of those are more or less right but not the locations — the phrase appears to have originated in Australia. Most of the early citations in print come from down under. It has a sort of Australian twang to it and is in common with several other similar phrases, all with the same meaning: starve the bardies [bardies are grubs], stiffen the crows, spare the crow.

Partridge also lists "starve the bardies or lizards or mopokes or wombats", marking them all as Australian expletives, and noting that "Wombats may also be speeded".

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Ok, but what do all of these sayings mean?? –  Marthaª Dec 6 '10 at 18:09
@Martha: that isn't part of the original question (^_^), but that Phrase Finder entry says "Meaning: An exclamation of incredulity or annoyance", and Partridge says "Aus. exclam., mostly joc.". –  RegDwigнt Dec 6 '10 at 18:22
@Martha: In retrospect, I probably should have included that in the question ;). –  Benubird Dec 7 '10 at 9:27

I believe it is "soundalike" - like how Cor Blimey sounds like "God Blind Me" (in certain accents) - for "Christ on the cross". If you didn't say the "cry" part, the rest pretty much matches. I base this on the habit of various elderly male relatives of mine from England to actually say "Christ on the cross" when they hit their thumb with a hammer or other situations that needed lots of syllables to indicate your sweariness. ("Jesus, Mary and Joseph" was also a good one for those times.) Seems these days we just say the same swearword 6 times instead of extending to a phrase, so having substitutes for the phrases may not make sense any more.

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Reference book coverage of 'stone the crows'

Here is the entry for "stone the crows" from Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like (2004):

stone the crows! Mild oath or exclamation — of no obvious origin except to state the obvious: expressions of disgust usually contain jabbing, explosive opening consonants that help the utterer get things off his chest. The OED2 has citations going back to 1930. G. A. Wilkes, A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (1978), comments, 'Sometimes "stiffen the crows" or "stone the crows and stiffen the lizards", occurring most frequently in comic strip Australian', and offers a 1918 citation as '"Starve the crows," howled Bluey in that agonised screech of his.' Another suggestion: might it be a euphemistic way of saying 'Stone the cross!' (i.e., 'croze' as in 'crozier' and suitably blasphemous-sounding). Or might it come from 'holy-stoning' — cleaning decks with soft sandstone — coupled with an allusion to 'crow's nest'?

Other recent reference works confirm much of Rees's description. And from Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases (2008):

stone the crows!

informal an exclamation of amazement, disbelief, or disgust. In Britain the phrase was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by the radio and television comedian Tony Hancock (1924–68), especially in its shortened form stone me! especially in its shortened form stone me! In fact the phrase originates in Australia, where it has remained in use along with other fanciful variants such as starve the crows (found earliest in print), spare the crows (a contrary notion, surely), and stiffen.

And from Max Cryer, Curious English Word and Phrases (2015):

God stiffen the crows


In 1922, British MP Sir George Edwards published his autobiography, From Crow Scaring to Westminster. Sir George told of his rural childhood during the late 1800s when, like many of the local children, he was sent out to the fields to throw stones and scare the crows away from crops. This was common practice in country areas, and young Gorge was paid sixpence (five cents) a day for crow scaring.


In parallel, and just as historic as Sir George Edwards' childhood memories of throwing stones at crows, was the Old English expression 'God stiffen it', meaning to destroy something or render it useless. ...

In time these expressions reached Australia, and gradually two developments took place. The crows were re-introduced to [comedian] Tony Hancock's abbreviation ["saying 'stone me' — as if he were a crow"]. And the crows were occasionally grafted onto the old expression about sinews being stiffened, resulting in the variation 'stiffen the crows' (and sometimes, in Australia, 'stone the crows and stiffen the lizards').

The earlier 'stoning' and 'stiffening' had lost touch with their original image of either scaring or being brave, and had become images of surprise and/or exasperation.

Google Books search results

A Google Books search finds a match for "stone the crows in Lincoln Hulley, A Farmer Prince (1925) [combined snippets]:

I had a playmate once my age;/As little tots we used to wage/Pitched battles with imagined foes,/And chase the cats, and stone the crows./He moved away from here at five/Years old, just think! why, man alive!/I loved that boy with all my all my heart;/He formed in all my plans a part.

This appears to be a literal use of the phrase,and Hulley lived his entire life in the United Sates, far from Australia the locus of early uses of "stone the crows" as an exclamation.

The next-earliest Google Books match is from Australian Parliamentary Debates (the exact date of the quotation is unconfirmed, but Google Books says that this volume of debates was published in 1931) [combined snippets]:

Mr. CUSACK.— ... Honorable members opposite who are being "Lionized" now require a name for their new party. I thought of calling it an oligarchy or a phylarchy, but that would hardly do. Then it occurred to me that it might be styled a gynarchy. It is said that the new party is having some difficulty in inducing the Leader of the Country party (Dr. Earle Page) to join it, but let me prophesy. I think that my words will soon be proved correct. One of these mornings, the leader of the gynarchy, when his valet opens the caucus room door, will find a flat object on the floor, with a label on it bearing these words — " With compliments from Hardy ". ... Then the leader of the gynarchy will say, "Stone the crows, Hardy, now we have one shepherd, one fold, and one crook ; kiss me, Hardy".

Mr.SPEAKER (Hon. Norman Makin). — This may all be very interesting, but I ask the honorable member to show that his remarks have a direct relation to the public affairs of this country.

Norman Makin was speaker of the Australian Parliament from November 20, 1929, until February 16, 1932, so the 1931 date of these debates appears to be pretty firm.

The next-earliest match is from Robert Thompson, Down Under: An Australian Odyssey (1932) [snippet]:

A not very amused cackle came over the wire, followed by a laconic statement: "H's no more in Northern Territory than you are. He's in Sydney."

"Stone the crows!" I exclaimed in pure Australian. "Right we'll meet you."

The earliest Google Books match for "stiffen the crows" is slightly later than these results for "stone the crows." From Michael Terry Untold Miles: Three Gold-Hunting Expeditions Amongst the Picturesque Borderland Ranges of Central Australia]( (1933) [snippet]:

"Ha, Ha, Bill, now we're learning things," I said. "My word, it must be a flash turnout if it has trucks, drays and camels. Stiffen the crows, why, the whole of the Westralian goldfields must be on the walkabout."

As Rees points out in A Word in Your Shell-like, "starve the crows" may be the oldest term for denying crows access to crops by chasing them away and throwing stones at them, as mentioned in Alan Gulston, Warren Knowles, volume 2 (1885):

Thus it was, that Peter Ward and all his family passed on to a new career. His wife, although still poorly dressed, became a pattern of neatness ; his children no longer wandered about the village and the lanes ; even farmer Dowbiggin took the eldest boy, at threepence a-day, to 'starve the crows,' which the child successfully accomplished, although throughout the day he also learned lessons set by his father.

An article in Geographical Magazine, volume 21 (1948) [combined snippets] lists some other allied expressions in the greater contrast of saying that invoke Australian animals:

Many lively descriptive phrases have been wrested from the Australian environment. For example: balmy as a bandicoot, bald as a bandicoot, and miserable as a bandicoot, which, needless to say are gross libels on the sagacious little marsupial; to have kangaroos in one's top paddock or to be as mad as a gumtree full of galahs, to be silly or crazy (a foolish person is often called a galah, after the name of the garrulous bird); like a possum up a gumtree, meaning completely happy; flat out like a lizard drinking, which has little to do with lizards, but which is an elaboration of the idea behind 'flat out', meaning in a hurry or making a great effort; tough as fencing wire and rough as bags, which more or less mean what they say; and such explosive phrases as stone the crows! speed the wombats! starve the mopokes! (the mopoke, or morepork, is a bird) and stiffen the lizards! There are enough terms of this nature to make the formal cliches of the English language almost superfluous — to the Australian if to no one else.

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"Stone the crows" comes from an actual event which happened in the late 1800s, just south of Roebourne in Western Australia.

A teenager who was part of the original white settlement there was becoming exasperated with the flies and the heat and in a moment of temper he picked up a stone to throw at a crow. As he was about to throw the stone, he stopped in his tracks because the stone was too heavy for its size. On inspection the stone contained a large proportion of gold. The term "stone the crows" traditionally translates to, "well how about that". The event is recorded in a book about the North West which was written in the 1930s. I have a copy of the book in my library if anybody wants more details.

Perth Sunday Times 1929 - here it is in print .

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Yes, please add the book title and author or isbn (did books from 1930 have them?), so that anyone interested can look it up. –  Benubird Mar 6 at 13:09
As soon as I get back to Western Australia I will add the information! –  Bruce Mar 17 at 11:40
This is quite interesting, but it has all the markings of being a folk etymology. As Reg and Sven’s answers point out, there are many variations of the expression (or were—I doubt many of them are in use anymore), many of which deal with neither stoning nor crows. Unless there’s actually a copy of the wires mentioned in the article still extant somewhere, I’d say most likely this story was probably made up some time in the early 20th century and then became a kind of urban legend, circulated enough that it became ‘truth’ and was printed in a newspaper. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 23 at 11:04

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