According to Wikipedia the common expression "the sky is falling" is from a folk tale:

  • Henny Penny, more commonly known in the United States as "Chicken Little" and sometimes as "Chicken Licken", is a folk tale with a moral in the form of a cumulative tale about a chicken who believes the world is coming to an end.

  • The phrase "The sky is falling!" features prominently in the story, and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent.

  • Earlier versions of the tale have appeared in print from the beginning of the 19th century in northen european countries (Germany, Denmark etc.)

Ngram shows usage examples of the expression 'the sky is falling' from the late 19th century.

Questions:

1) Was the expression coined in the English version of the tale or was it just translated from earlier foreign versions?

2) Can the expression actually have a much earlier origin, such as a biblical one for instance, possibly with a different connotation?

  • I remember that Obelisk (from the Asterix books) was afraid of the sky falling on his head. That's mid 20th century, so clearly not an earlier use, but I always assumed that Goscinny and Uderzo based it on common beliefs from the time it was set (Roman occupation of Gaul, whenever that was). – AndyT Feb 9 '16 at 14:48
  • 3
    It's from that one time the sky fell in the mid-18th century. We've been on the lookout ever since. – Dan Bron Feb 9 '16 at 14:52
  • The idea that the heavens are falling (i.e. impending disaster) is much much older than the late 19th century. Are you asking specifically about "sky"? – TRomano Feb 9 '16 at 14:54
  • @TimRomano - I am asking about the expression we commonly use, whose origin may come from different wording or context. – user66974 Feb 9 '16 at 14:56
  • So you would treat the phrase "the heavens are falling" as synonymous? – TRomano Feb 9 '16 at 14:57
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The first instance of the Chicken Little story that a Google Books search finds is from "Remarkable Story of Chicken Little: An Occurrence of Everyday Life," in the [New York] Gazette of the Union and The Golden Rule (December 9, 1848):

As Chicken Little was one day strolling about in a garden, she ran under a rose-bush and a leaf fell on her tail.

A Fox was standing by, and who wanted to make a good hearty meal, accosted her in amost friendly manner. "Oh, Chicken Little," said he, "you are shamefully abused. That weight which fell upon your tail was a grievous oppression. You ought to stir up your friends, and make a fuss about it." Chicken Little was awfully alarmed and excited, and away she ran to Hen Pen.

"Oh, Hen Pen!" said she, "the sky is falling! for the soaring larks have unfastened it!"

In this version of the story, all of the barnyard fowl blame the larks for breaking up the sky and causing it to fall—which is why Hen Pen, Duck Luck, Goose Loose, and the rest turn to Fox Lox (well known as a foe of larks) for help. Interestingly larks are connected to an earlier commentary on skies falling. From "Debate on the Bank of the United States" (April 13, 1810), in The American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics and Science (1811):

[Remarks of Mr. Taylor:] But, says the gentleman [Mr. Love], there will be foreign influence. George the third may come over to reside here, I suppose—for unless he were here he could not vote. Sir, if the sky were to fall, we should catch larks—and that is not a more extreme case than the gentleman's hypothesis. {Mr. Love said he had supposed that the king of Great Britain would send his agents to reside here, who, being ostensible owners of the stock, might have the whole direction of the bank.}

Mr Taylor was by no means the first person to cite this aphorism. From Humphrey Mackworth, The Principles of a Member of the Black List: Set Forth by Way of a Dialogue (1702):

Attorney. But suppose the King and the Lords, should concur with the Commons to the ruine of the Nation ; What then?

L[or]d B. Suppose the Sky should fall ; What then?

Lawyer. Why then we should catch Larks.

L[or]d B. Ha, ha, that's right: And when King, Lords, and Commons, shall joyn together to give up our Liberties, I am afraid the Day of Judgment will come soon after, and then it is no matter who rules upon Earth.

James Howell, Proverbs, or, Old Sayed Sawes & Adages (1659) lists "When the Sky falls we shall catch Larks" as an English proverb.

William Nicholls, A Conference with a Theist (1696) cites a cataclysmic skyfall that he claims is part of a Chinese origin myth:

And as for the Chinese, that knowing Nation, which you Theists are wont to cry up for the standard of primitive Learning, and genuine Antiquity, let us see how they mend the matter in their account [of the origin of things]. And they tell us that one Tayn who lived in Heaven, famous for his Wisdom, disposed the parts of the World into the order we find them. That he created out of nothing the first Man Panson, and his Wife Pansone. That Panson by a delegated power from Tayn, created another Man called Tanhom, who was a great Naturalist and Physician, and understanding the nature of things gave names to them ; and this Tanhom had 13 Brethren so created,and so the World was peopled at first: Then after a while the Sky fell down upon the Earth, and destroyed them ; ...

However, the threat of the sky falling had been discussed since the days of the Old Testament prophets. From an 1852 translation of John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah (originally written in 1556):

These statements [made by Isaiah] must not be understood to relate to men's apprehension, for heaven is not moved out of its place; but when the Lord gives manifestations of his anger, we are terrified as if the Lord folded up or threw down the heavens; not that anything of this kind takes place in heaven, but he speaks to careless men, who needed to be addressed in this manner, that they might not imagine the subject to be trivial or a fit subject of scorn."You will be seized with such terror that you shall think that the sky is falling down on your heads." It is the just punishment of indifference, that wicked men, who are not moved by any fear of God, dread their own shadow, and tremble "at the rustling of a falling leaf." (Lev[iticus] xxvi. 36,) as much as if the sun were falling from heaven.

One of the earliest English writings to treat the possibility of the sky's falling as a spurious concern is John Bramhall, "An Answer to Monsieur de la Militière his Epistle to the King of Great-Britain," appended to Théophile Brachet La Milletière, The Victory of Truth for the Peace of the Church: To the King of Great Britain; to Invite Him to Embrace the Roman-Catholick Faith (1653):

He that weighs no more Circumstances or Occurrances than serve for the advancement of his Design, pronounceth sentence easily, but temerariously, and for the most part unsoundly. When such a thing as you dream of should happen, it were good manners in you to leave his Majesty to his Christian Liberty. But to trouble your self and others about the Moons shining in the water, so unseasonably, so impertinently, or with what will come to pass when the sky falls, is unbeseeming the Counseller of a King.

It thus appears that the Chicken Little story plays on two traditions: mythical descriptions of the sky falling and its effects on humanity, and jocular or scornful dismissals of the same possibility.

  • Thanks, you confirm my impression of a serious biblical expression, later used in a jocular way. – user66974 Feb 9 '16 at 22:50
  • @Josh61: I was reminded of the proverb in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 22, verse 13, which says, "The sluggard saith, 'There is a lion without: I shall be slain in the streets.'" The sluggard is a recurring character in Proverbs, and he qualifies as one kind of fool among many different kinds of fools . Don – rhetorician Feb 10 '16 at 0:12

The connection between "the sky is falling" and larks appears also in Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper" (1616), where he promises his guest some larks as a dish: "And though fowl now be scarce, yet there are clerks, The sky not falling, think we may have larks."

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