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In the US, buzzard denotes vultures, but also a contemptible or rapacious person to use definition 3 from the online Merriam-Webster. The most common phrase I'm personally familiar with is to say you old buzzard, usually said to some old guy who you are half-jokingly saying is lecherous or a cheater or some other un-good thing.

In the UK, the word buzzard denotes to the genus Buteo, generally a more dignified and diverse bunch of birds. The Cambridge dictionary (I have no OED access) has one entry, just about birds. Does the word buzzard carry any non-birdlike connotations there? Would you ever apply it to a human, and if so, how?

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    Comment on both answers: I've never come across it in exactly that sense in English English (or the rest of British English but my experience is more limited there). I think I've seen old buzzard meaning old man, and not as a compliment, in a British source (and not a recent one) but I could be wrong. If I pin it down I'll let you know. – Chris H Dec 8 '17 at 8:24
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    Never heard it used that way in my life (40-year-old native speaker; lived in northern and southern England). If I heard it, I guess I'd parse it as a bowdlerized "bastard". – David Richerby Dec 8 '17 at 9:46
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    We don't even use y'all :-) – Mawg Dec 8 '17 at 10:42
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    @Maug I think "y'all" takes the place of the plural "you", so "all y'all" would be the equivalent of "all (of) you", i.e. it would change the question from "Do you..." to "Do all of you / Does everyone..." – DaveMongoose Dec 8 '17 at 12:12
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    I wasn't imagining it -- it's used in Greenmantle by John Buchan (a Scotsman). But the line * I guess it's some old Buzzard's harem* was spoken by Mr John Scantlebury Blenkiron, now a citizen of Boston, Mass., but born and raised in Indiana. So the only British author I could think of using the phrase put it in the mouth of an American (and went on to mention a turkey-buzzard, i.e. vulture) – Chris H Dec 8 '17 at 16:35
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'Buzzard' in British slang

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938) offers this entry for buzzard:

buzzard. A stupid, ignorant, foolish, gullible person : C. 14–19, extant in dial[ect]. B.E. [Dictionary of the Canting Crew (ca. 1690)] gives as s[lang], S[horter] O[xford] D[ictionary] as S[tandard] E[nglish] ; prob[ably] it wavered between coll[oquial] and S[tandard] E[nglish] before it [became] dial[ectal]. Often in C. 18–20, in form blind buzzard. Ex buzzard, a useless hawk.

The earliest slang dictionary I found that has an entry for buzzard is A New Canting Dictionary: Comprehending All the Terms, Ancient and Modern, Used in the Several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggars, Shoplifters, Highwaymen, Foot-Pads, and all other Clans of Cheats and Villains (1725):

BUZZARD, a foolish sort Fellow, easily drawn in and cullied or trick'd.

Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) offers much the same definition 60 years later, with an additional note on the variant term blind buzzard:

BUZZARD, a simple fellow; a blind buzzard, a purblind man or woman.

So not only does British English have (at least historically) buzzard as a pejorative slang term for a contemptible person, but the term appears to have originated there, perhaps by the 14th century.

And whereas buzzard in North America refers to one of two kinds of vulture, the European buzzard is a hawk, but (according to Partridge) a "useless" one. This presumably refers to its worthlessness for falconry—which in Renaissance times might well have been seen as a strong demerit. The favorite prey of the common buzzard is the field vole, according to Wikipedia. The European honey buzzard meanwhile, eats mainly wasp and hornet larvae. Hence (perhaps) the uselessness of buzzards and honey buzzards as hawks that one might consider training as hunting birds.

More-recent dictionaries of British slang, however—such as John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) and Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990)—have no entry for buzzard; and Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) reports that most of the slang meanings of buzzard to arise since the mid-1800s are limited to the United States:

buzzard n. {all fig[urative] uses of S[tandard] E[nglish]} 1 {late 16C–late 19C} a weak foolish person, a gullible dupe; thus, adj. buzzardly. 2 {19C+} an old and unattractive person; often as old buzzard. 3 {mid-19C+} (US) a native of the state of Georgia. 4 {late 19C} (US) a silver dollar {the eagle inscribed on it}. 5 {1900s} (US) a filthy child. 6 {1900s} (US milit[ary]) an honourable discharge 7 {1900s–40s} (US) a worthless horse. 8 {1910s} (US Und[erworld]) a police officer. 9 {1910s–30s} (US tramp) a second-rate thief; one who preys on women. 10 {1920s} an unpleasant person. 11 {1920s–30s} (US Und[erworld]) a beggar, the lowest form of tramp. 12 {1930s} (US) an aviator. 13 {1940s} (US army) chicken. 14 {1950s–1960s} an animal, a creature. 15 {1980s} an unattractive woman.

Intriguingly, however, definition 2—"an old and unattractive person; often as old buzzard"—is not listed as being specific to the United States. The phrase "old buzzard pops up in "Life of a Collegian" reprinted also in Old Plays (1820), about a student starting at Magdalen College, Oxford:

What's the use of translations, unless it is translating a pretty girl from the outside to the inside, as we did the glover's daughter last night, and as I did Sal Spanker under my gown, after hours, yesterday evening, under the very nose of our old buzzard of a porter, without his having any suspicion; ...

but its meaning there is probably closer to "old fool" than "old and unattractive person."


'Buzzard' in North American slang

The history of buzzard in North America is quite interesting as well. According to John Bartlett, A Glossary of Words and Phrases, Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, second edition (1859), in mid-nineteenth century usage, buzzard referred to broad-winged hawks of what is now the genus Buteo, just as it did in Britain:

BUZZARD. A name given to several kinds of hawks indigenous to America, such as the Black-Buzzard, (Falco harlani), the Red-tailed Hawk or Buzzard (Falco borealis), and the Short-winged Buzzard, or Great Hen-Hawk (Falco buteoides). See also Turkey-Buzzard.

Today, the three buteos that Bartlett mentions are commonly known as Harlan's hawk (a subspecies of the red-tailed hawk), red-tailed hawk, and red-shouldered hawk. I have never heard a North American refer to any of these hawks as a "buzzard," so that usage must have died out completely, supplanted by buzzard as vulture.

Unfortunately, despite his cross reference to "See also Turkey-Buzzard," Bartlett neglected to include an entry for turkey-buzzard, so we can't see it. Bartlett did, however, include this pungent example from the entry for shyster (a term that, at that date referred to ""a set of men who hang about the Police Courts of New York and other large cities, and practise in them as lawyers, but who, in many cases, have never been admitted to the bar"):

The miserable creature who has fallen into the watchman's clutches may make his escape if he has money; but if not, he must go to quod and wait next day for the visits of the shyster lawyers—a sett of turkey buzzards, whose touch is pollution and whose breath is pestilence. —New York in Slices. The Tombs. [1849]

Undoubtedly, this slang use of turkey buzzard refers to the turkey vulture, indicating that buzzard was being applied ornithologically to vultures by 1849—in fact, Audubon uses the term turkey buzzard in his encyclopedic Ornithological Biography (1834)—and that it was also being applied metaphorically to opportunistic bottom feeders in the U.S. court system (and perhaps elsewhere) by the same year.

In the fourth edition of Bartlett, A Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), the entry for buzzard vanishes, and a new entry for turkey-buzzard appears:

Turkey-Buzzard. (Cathartes aura.) A common American species of vulture, having a distinct resemblance to a turkey, and remarkable for its graceful flight in the higher regions of the air. They were formerly found as far north as Pennsylvania, but they are now confined to the Southern States.

The flight of the Turkey-buzzard is graceful compared with that of the Black Vulture. ... —Audubon, Ornithological Biog[raphy] [1834], Vol. II., p. 296.

The reference to human "turkey buzzards" in the quotation from New York in Slices, under the entry for shyster, remains in place.

Maximillian Schele De Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872), in reporting that Americans have erroneously adopted buzzard as the name for a vulture, shows no awareness that Americans were (according to Bartlett) properly applying the term to buteos a quarter of a century earlier:

Similar confusion prevails here [in North America] about the name of Buzzard, which is commonly misapplied, being given to a vulture instead of a hawk, since true [European] buzzards bear at least some resemblance to the two American Henhawks (Butes borealis and Butes lineatus), the latter known as the red-shouldered hawk.

Elsewhere in the same book, De Vere notes a different North American slang use of buzzard (one overlooked by Green):

Buzzard is the half-facetious half-contemptuous term applied in several mechanical professions to a badly-spoiled piece of work. "Said the venerable Mr. G. to one of his jours: Sir, I pronounce that job an unmitigated buzzard; and, sir, promptly responded the jour, I pronounce it cut a buzzard, and, therefore, nothing else could be made of it." (Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Intelligencer, May 6, 1871.)

De Vere also points out that Richard Frame, "A Short Description of Pennsylvania" (1692) mentions turkey buzzards:

As for the Flocks of Fowle, and Birds, pray mind,

The Swans, and Geese, and Turkeys, in their kind,

The Turkey-Buzzard and Bald-Eagle high,

Wild Ducks, which in great Companyes do fly;

More sorts of Fowle here are than I can tell,

Yet here are other things, which do excell.

Indicating that turkey buzzard as a common name for the turkey vulture has been in use for more than 300 years.

  • Eric Partridge, I should note, was an Englishman; and his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, especially in its early editions, was primarily concerned with British slang. – Sven Yargs Dec 8 '17 at 8:11
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    I've lived in the UK for more than 10 years and never heard this! Would you say it's uncommon? – Wilson Dec 8 '17 at 9:59
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    I'm a 40-something native speaker and I've never encountered this usage except in classic literature, perhaps from the 19th Century; never in everyday conversation or modern texts. It's rare or obsolete. – njd Dec 8 '17 at 10:37
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    @Wilson and njd: Writing in 1938, Partridge says that buzzard, in the slang sense given, was in general use in Britain during the 14th to 19th centuries, and that it remains in dialectal use in unspecified parts of the UK (again, as of 1938). It seems likely to me that the slang term buzzard migrated to the North America from Britain with the colonists and evolved in sense over the ensuing centuries. Whether North Americans' association of the term with the very different birds that they called a "buzzards" (the turkey vulture, mainly) influenced that evolution is a matter for speculation. – Sven Yargs Dec 8 '17 at 18:16
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I think it is mainly an American English expression as shown by Google Books:

Slang definitions & phrases for buzzard:

A dislikable person, esp an old man : a stingy and predatory old buzzard (1600s+)

The eagle worn as insignia by a colonel or a naval captain (1930s+ Armed forces)

(The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition)

Buzzard:

n. an old man; a mean old man. (Especially with old.) Some old buzzard is at the door asking for Mary Wilson.

(McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang)

It is worth noting that, as suggested by the Green’s Dictionary of Slang, buzzard has developed many different usages from the 19th century, most of them in American English.

  1. [mid-19C+] (US) a native of the state of Georgia.
  2. [late 19C] (US) a silver dollar [the eagle inscribed on it].
  3. [1900s] (US, also turkey buzzard) a filthy child.
  4. [1900s] (US milit.) an honourable discharge.
  5. [1900s–40s] (US) a worthless horse.
  6. [1910s] (US Und.) a police officer.
  7. [1910s–30s] (US tramp) a second-rate thief; one who preys on women.
  8. [1920s] an unpleasant person.
  9. [1920s–30s] (US Und.) a beggar, the lowest form of tramp.
  10. [1930s] (US) an aviator.
  11. [1940s] (US army) chicken.
  12. [1950s–60s] an animal, a creature.
  13. [1980s] an unattractive woman.
  • Do those dictionaries only include entries that are exclusively American slang? I seems to me that those quotes don't say anything about the prevalence in British English. – Sparhawk Dec 8 '17 at 12:28
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    @Sparhawk - it is not an expression I’ve met before from a BrE perspective. And it looks like it is more commonly used in AmE from the evidence and comments posted so far. The term appears to have developed different meanings in past decades especially in AmE - See greensdictofslang.com/entry/s7zq5da – user067531 Dec 8 '17 at 12:35

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