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Where does the phrase "Ain't no thang but a chicken wang" come from?

Per Online Slang Dictionary, it's an interjection used to indicate that something is "okay; not a big concern." Similarly, I understand that phrase to mean, "it's not difficult."

But where does this phrase come from? Is there a metaphor here with chicken wings?

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  • It is true that chicken wings are almost vestigial but I wonder if that enters into the meaning of "it's not difficult" or "no big deal." It feels to me like a rhyming nonsense phrase.
    – releseabe
    Jun 4, 2023 at 2:56
  • One usage from 1988 is here, but the song by OutKast in 1994 likely popularized it.
    – alphabet
    Jun 6, 2023 at 2:35
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    Can you please supply some context? This is not a commonly used English expression, so "where you heard it" could help a lot with getting you a clear answer.
    – Fraser Orr
    Jun 6, 2023 at 2:46
  • It's annoying to parse through, but anyone wanting to answer may consider looking through this. Jun 6, 2023 at 16:26
  • It means that something is no big deal.
    – Lambie
    Dec 4, 2023 at 17:10

2 Answers 2

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Chickens can't fly, so it stems to reason that their wings are unimportant chicken wings are unimportant. For the chickens that is. If you like to eat chickens, then chicken wings can be very important.

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    Actually chickens can fly. Their wing feathers are often clipped to prevent it.
    – Peter
    Jun 4, 2023 at 1:59
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    When cooked, chicken wings might be important, but they're still pretty small. People can eat a lot in one sitting. Smaller than other parts of the cooked chicken.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 5, 2023 at 14:50
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A Google Books search turns up two instances of "ain't no thing but a chicken wing" from the period 1988–1991. The older instance is from Gerald Grant, The World We Created at Hamilton High (1988):

Coming out of a computer class, whites are entertaining black classmates as they read with comic skill a note that a black nicknamed Tron Dee has sent them on the computer:

Tron Dee in the place to be once again. Because it ain't no thing but a chicken wing. Me and my home boys run this school and every body in it. The reason for this letter is because some of you softies have step out of line. And it is up to me and my boys to put you back in check. ...

These whites who could jive with black classmates would find it hard to imagine the fear that seized white students who heard such language fifteen years earlier.

The cited episode seems to have occurred in approximately 1984–1985. "Hamilton High" is "a fictional name for a real school that opened in 1953 with 1,200 students in a Northeast city of 200,000," according to Charles Lawrence, "The School They Asked For," New York Times (October 16, 1988).

The expression also appears in Urban Profile (December 1991–January 1992) as one note in the following string of detached observations [combined snippets]:

THE CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS Ain't no thing but a chicken wing. See you in D.C.! THURGOOD MARSHALL We were sorry to see you leave, Thurgood. But as you said "I'm old. It was time for me to go." Much respect for a job well done. 30 44. 45 . FORMER D.C. MAYOR MARION BARRY Devils won.

Urban Profile (tagline: "Understanding the Need ... Accepting the Challenge"), was a U.S. magazine with a predominantly Black readership. Although it had a national audience, it appears to have originated in Baltimore, Maryland. Unfortunately, the quoted results are not visible in the snippet window of the Google Books viewing window. The date checks out because Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court on October 1, 1991, and Marion Barry was sentenced to federal prison for cocaine possession in October 1991.

Before the chicken wing was appended to the expression, it seems to have end at "ain't no thing," as in the following instance from testimony by Dr. Daniel Hendershott of the Central States Institute of Addictions (June 1, 1985) Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking, published in Chicago: Hearings Before the House of Representatives Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control (1986):

Mr. TOWNS. Doctor, let me ask you this. Why do you think this [rampant drug use] has been happening?

Dr. HENDERSHOTT. Because we're in a very complex problem with our social structure, our legal structure and also the whole business of our values. We are just lying to ourselves. We're simply not honest about what we want to do with ourselves. We're a feeling society and whatever feels good we're into it, and that's where we are right now. We're feeling it, and if it feels lright, it's OK. We haven't discriminated between what is really best for our health and for our own selves as human beings. And until we start doing that, it ain't going to change, and you know what they say in schools , it ain't no thing. That's what I hear all the time. Taking drugs, it ain't no thing, but it really is.

Earlier instances of "[it] ain't no thing" date to the 1970s at least. The 1983 edition of Songwriter's Market, for example, lists an R&B/funk single by Phoenix titled "Ain't No Thing" by Phoenix.

From an unidentified play excerpted in National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, NADSA Encore (1977) [combined snippets]:

BILL: Don't know any other little tykes I'd wanta give a good bronk like that to... but like I said, ifen that thing that's keepin' ya Ma from letting you go back to Wyoming with me...

CALEB: It ain't no thing...

BILL: Ifen that thing keep on interferin'...

CALEB: Ain't no thing. It's...

BILL Yeah?

CALEB: You gonna kill him?

BILL : What?

CALEB: Ma says you gonna kill him ifen you find out who he is.

Another possibly related occurrence occurs in an unidentified speech reprinted in Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the Massachusetts State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, volume 11 (1968) [combined snippets]:

There fore I recommend my friends, that we are going through troubled waters and I want to conclude this speech. I only have taken twelve minutes. I will conclude the speech in fifteen. I want to say a few things to my black brothers and a few things to my white brothers and my white sisters and black sisters because everybody is trying to fool you. Everybody has got his thing going now. We don't want to be doing our thing. I mean I am against each person doing his thing because as long as you are doing your thing and I am doing my thing that ain't no thing. (Laughter and applause)


Conclusions

"Ain't no thing but a chicken wing" goes back to at least 1988 in published writing, meaning that it did not originate with Outkast in 1994. The shorter form of the expression "it ain't no thing goes back at least to 1977and perhaps to the late 1960s.

I should note however, that no form of the expression is reported in either Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) or Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994). In fact, the earliest glossary I've found that cites it is Randy Kearse, Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop & Urban Slanguage (2006):

ain't no thang {but a chicken wing} phrase (general sl.) old school 1. a way to dismiss something as being unimportant or not a problem. 2. a humorous way to down play how you feel when someone may have offended you. (var. ain't no thang)

Kearse explains the label "old school" as applied to slang as follows:

Old School slang is the slang used in the early years of Hip-Hop up to and ending in, 1995.

So the Outkast mention of the phrase falls into Kearse's old school category, barely. Why 1995 is the dividing line between old and new goes unexplained in Kearse's book; I suspect that it's an arbitrary cutoff based largely on the fact that for a book published in 2006, any slang more than ten years old is inherently old. Interestingly, Kearse's entry for "ol' school" identifies it as a "new school" expression:

ol' school n. (general sl.) new school 1. a way to make reference to the past. 2. anything retro.

And yet Smitherman included a fairly extensive entry for the term back in the old school day of 1994:

OLD SCHOOL 1) The style of Rap Music in its early days, beginning in the 1970s. Exemplified by such Rappers as Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, and Afrika Bambaataa. 2) Anything from the 1960s and 1970s. "Bell-bottom pants, platform shoes, that's Old School." 3) A reference to a seasoned veteran or a person highly experienced in something (older usage); probably derived from African Americans' stress on the significance of life and living as a teacher, the "school" of experience.

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  • As for the deeper meaning of the expression, I suspect that the rhyme carries pretty much the whole load—not unlike the classic childhood exchange, "Know what?" "What?" "Turkey butt!"
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 5, 2023 at 8:57

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