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In answering a recent EL&U question (Idiom for the phrase "someone who gets what he deserved"), I cited the phrase "The chickens have come home to roost," and said that it "applies whether the person deserved good results and got them or deserved bad results and got them."

But an astute commenter observed "I don't think I've ever heard that idiom used in a good context," which led me to wonder whether I was wrong in claiming that the saying focused strictly on the justice of the chickens' homecoming and not on whether their presence was injurious or beneficial to the person (or thing) so visited.

I subsequently found that the phrase is indeed strongly tilted toward the suggestion that that the metaphorical chickens are undesirable results of past conduct or action. Specifically, the phrase seems to have originated with a proverb equating curses to chickens returning home to roost.

But is the connection of the phrase to curses being lost in modern, informal usage? Can the phrase reasonably be used today to express a notion of either positive or negative consequences flowing from correspondingly positive or negative actions? And finally, what is the origin of the proverb about curses resembling chickens that come home to roost?

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    Those hateful chickens. – Andy May 21 '14 at 20:15
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    @Andy: It's not their fault - they're just thoughtless birdbrains. Do you also hate those stupid lambs who're always being led to the slaughter? It's the turkeys who vote for Christmas that bother me. How is democracy to flourish when people see behaviour like that? – FumbleFingers May 21 '14 at 20:51
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According to the following source 'chickens' appeared in 1810; as to a possible positive meaning of the saying, I can find no evidence to support this view. My take is that the idiomatic phrase has still its negative original connotations.

Chicken coming home to roost :

'The older fuller form was curses are like chickens; they always come home to roost, meaning that your offensive words or actions are likely at some point to rebound on you. The idea goes back to Chaucer, though he expressed it rather differently in The Parson’s Tale, around 1390, writing that curses are like “a bird that returns again to his own nest”. Various versions are recorded down the years, but chickens appeared on the scene only in the nineteenth century, in Robert Southey’s oriental epic poem The Curse of Kehama of 1810. The image of farm chickens going out to forage during the day but coming back to the safety of the hen-house at dusk would have been familiar to his readers. It’s easy to find examples from then on, such as the one in Roughing it in the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, by Susanna Moodie, of 1852: “The next time the old woman commences her reprobate conduct, tell her to hold her tongue, and mind her own business, for curses, like chickens, come home to roost.” That form is still common, mainly in North America. During the nineteenth century, the proverb was abbreviated to its modern form. An early example was in the Wisconsin Patriot on 10 November 1855: “Barstow has always been a belter, and he need not complain to find his chickens coming home to roost.” You can tell the expression had become widely known by the middle of the nineteenth century because it was abbreviated still further into the elliptical home to roost. James Russell Lowell wrote in 1870, “All our mistakes sooner or later surely come home to roost.” Sometimes this could lead to weird images, as in Mr Punch’s History of the Great War of 1919, in which a character claims that a man’s “wild oats are coming home to roost”. Other forms are known, such as curses come home to roost, which is in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.'

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I don't think I've ever heard the chickens have come home to roost used in a positive sense. The Phrase Finder, for example, defines the meaning as...

Bad deeds or words return to discomfort their perpetrator.

It's particularly worth noting another observation from that link...

Chickens didn't enter the scene [sayings about bad deeds coming back to haunt their originator] until the 19th century when a fuller version of the phrase was used as a motto on the title page of Robert Southey's poem The Curse of Kehama, 1810:

Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.

This extended version is still in use, notably in the USA.


In light of that, I think it's safe to say that if you really wanted to use a roost-based expression in a positive sense you'd have to copy these two (slightly quirky) usages...

Your ship has finally come home to roost

  • I recall how Billy Bunter was always expecting 'his ship to come in'. At least that's what he told people from whom he was trying to get a loan. Geese are more beneficent when they 'lay golden eggs'. – WS2 May 21 '14 at 23:07
  • @WS2: I know Billy Bunter was always expecting a postal order. So far as I recall it never actually arrived, and I don't remember him using that particular metaphor either. (But it was a while ago, so I might have just forgotten! :) – FumbleFingers May 22 '14 at 10:54
  • Yes my recollections are that his monetary expectations alternated between ships arriving, and postal orders, one no doubt a metaphor for the other. – WS2 May 22 '14 at 12:36
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The first instance of "The chickens have come home to roost" that a Google Books search finds is from C.A. Marvin, "Regulating Teeth," in The Dental Times (January 1868), and the chickens are unmistakably undesirable:

And now the universal law of compensation asserts itself ; a disordered stomach, a fetid breath, a loss of strength, all succeed, and the penalty of violated duty is inflicted upon the offending organs, the teeth. "The chickens have come home to roost." It is but simple justice. People will not see it, however. They wonder why they should have such poor teeth.

Further searching does turn up rare instances where the phrase appears to be used to refer to positive consequences or to consequences that are good for some and bad for others. In the purely positive category, we have this admiring article about South African entrepreneur Otto Mnyande from Enterprise 200 (1994) [series of snippets]:

Thandanani Foods. A Commitment to Ubuntu

The chickens have come home to roost for former sweeper, government clerk, sales rep and bold entrepreneur Otto Mnyande.

Umtata-based Thandanani Foods, frozen chicken wholesaler to Transkei's four million people, has a turnover of R2,5-million a month. The office of the Otto Mnyande, who once had to vacate a post of cardex clerk because of job reservation, is sparsely furnished with a tidy desk, displayed on which is a certificate of merit from the Transkei branch of the South African Black Social Workers' Association.

The certificate epitomizes the humane and skillful marketing strategy of this burly six-foot bearded businessman who saw a gap in the in the frozen food market and exploited it with borrowed money 16 years ago.

An earlier instance of similarly positive use appears in Christopher Sinsbaugh, Who Me!: Forty Years of Automobile History (1940) [series of snippets]:

Bill took the assignment seriously; in fact, he fell in love with the cyclecar idea, and his stories about the foreign development aroused interest in the tiny car and soon our engineers were playing with the idea. Bill, who even then was quite some designer, got busy with his pencil and published sketches of his ideas of what a cyclecar should be. These were inspirations for others who were working along the same lines, and soon one of Stout's chickens came home to roost. W. H. Mclntyre, of Auburn, Ind., who had been building motor buggies, gave Stout the assignment to design a cyclecar for him, which he planned to put on the market. Bill went to it and he drafted a job that met with McIntyre's approval. It was the Imp, first of America's cyclecars.

And in the positive-for-some/negative-for-others category, we have this instance from Michael Goldstein, "Re-Inventing Broadway," in in New York Magazine (May 29, 1995):

Securing tax breaks for new shows. No entertainment business can survive without new product. CBS Records, for example, learned this at some cost. In 1987, it was the industry king. The problem, though, was that CBS was minting money with two giant stars, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson: old acts. Meanwhile, its main rival, Warner Records, had been busy launching new acts like Anita Baker and Madonna.

By 1989, the chickens had come home to roost: Warner had rocketed to a 40 percent market share, and CBS was down to 16 percent. Again, the analogy between Broadway and CBS (in 1987) holds: Where Springsteen and Jackson gave music executives a false sense of security, Rodgers and Hammerstein satisfies today's Broadway landlords while the guts behind the expensive façade slowly disintegrate.

But the negative examples are overwhelmingly more common, undoubtedly because the phrase "The chickens have come home to roost" arose from an older proverb: "Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost." The first unmistakable version of that proverb appears as an epigraph to Robert Southey's poem "The Curse of Kehama" (1810):

Curses are like young chickens, they always come home to roost.

Southey sets his poem in ancient India, but several mid-19th-century authors identify the proverb, in streamlined form, as being Arabian (G.C. Holland, The Millocrat, 1841) or Turkish (William Sherwood, Self-Culture in Reading, Speaking and Conversation, 1855), usually giving it in this form:

Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost.

Nevertheless, a suspiciously similar saying appears in Chaucer, "Parson's Tale" (by 1400):

speke we now of swich cursynge as comyth of irous herte.

Melisoun generally may be seyd euery maner pouwer of harm Swich cursynge bireuyth euery man from the regne of god, as seith seynt poule.

And ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully returnyth a-geyn to hym that curseth. as a brid that turnyth a-geyn to his owene nest.

The origin of the proverb is thus uncertain. It seems quite clear, however, that the source of "the chickens have come home to roost" is "curses, like chickens, come home to roost"—and curses are extremely negative. Other things besides curses that (according to various 19th-century authors) "like chickens come home to roost" include lies, sins, wrongs, errors, evil wishes, taunts and sneers, "the lewd story or jest about women," restrictive immigration laws, politics, promises, thoughts, thoughtless radicalism, habits, and boys.

On the other hand, Geoge Burrowes, "Liberality Rewarded," in The Pacific Expositor, (December 1860) suggests a positive connection to homing chickens:

There is an old adage, "Curses like chickens, come home to roost." The same is true of blessings, deeds of kindness and benevolence.

But there is no evidence of a contemporaneous groundswell of support for the phrase "Blessings, like chickens, come home to roost."

Nevertheless, when the word curses drops out of the "chickens have come home to roost" expression, it makes a more benign interpretation of the phrase at least theoretically plausible.

The potential to view chickens coming home to roost as a good thing gained some ground when air force commanders (and others) during World War 2 referred to flyers returning from their latest mission as chickens coming home to roost. Among several authors who make this analogy is Rothsay Stuart-Worley, Letters from a Flying Officer (1982) [series of snippets]:

I search the sky; then suddenly I spot them, flying together lower and to the left of the first group of three. Thank God, they're all back safely ... all my 'chickens' have come home to roost: the happiest ending to the day. . . .

But the real tussle has only just begun. It will take time and a great deal of hard work before we finally drive the Germans from the air. There are a lot of stout fellows amongst them.

This usage obviously doesn't originate in the "curses" proverb, but it may have had some influence in softening the connection between chickens returning home and negative consequences.

Even before the war, the notion that returning to a familiar place is like chickens coming home to roost produced instances where the phrase did not imply a curse or anything negative. For example, From the April 6, 1920, address by President Chapman reported in "Wisconsin Jewelers Hold Excellent Convention," in The Jewelers' Circular (April 14, 1920), we have this paragraph:

You know there is an old saying that "chickens come home to roost." We have held our convention the last two years in other cities of the State, and while we have been treated most royally in these cities, we are glad to be back to Milwaukee. We kind of feel at home here you know. We have always found such a ready welcome from the jewelers of Milwaukee that we sometimes feel that we should meet here every year.

Ultimately, though, if you say or write that "the chickens have come home to roost," your listeners or readers will almost certainly expect that the chickens bear negative consequences of past misdeeds or indiscretions.

  • Thanks for an entertaining write-up based on some good sleuthing! – Erik Kowal May 22 '14 at 1:32
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The text for a sermon "Chickens Come Home to Roost" by an old-time preacher J. Vernon McGee, was Gal 6:7:

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap

and the verse following echoes

sowing to flesh reaps corruption... sowing to spirit reaps eternal life.

McGee's analogies to the chickens is consistently in the negative sense. However, it is obvious from the verse itself when connected to the proverbial chickens, that the chickens aren't either good or bad, but the assurance is that the innate law of chickens is that they will come home to roost. He calls it a "Banquet of Consequences".

  • Although the "sow/reap" proverb may refer to both positive and negatives, if he only refers to chickens for the negative ones this isn't a counterexample. – Barmar Dec 30 '14 at 21:48
  • McGee's sermon—available at gracebaptistchurchmadisonville.com/…, among other online locations—isn't altogether clear on this point, but McGee does seem to view "the chickens coming home to roost" as a modern way of saying "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," whether (as Paul says) it be to the flesh, to reap corruption, or to the spirit to reap eternal life. The sermon appears to have been delivered in the late 1960s. – Sven Yargs Dec 30 '14 at 23:48

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