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(Note: I've seen the question What's the difference between 'fowl' and 'poultry'? but I am not asking about the definition, rather the historical usage pattern.)

In modern English we talk about chickens (the bird) and chicken (the meat), as in a plate of chicken, or some chickens in a farmyard.

I read a lot of older novels, particularly from the early 19th c. (Dickens and so on) and have often noticed that they don't talk about chicken, or chickens. The word "fowl" is used. For example, in Dickens' Little Dorrit there is a mention of "cold fowl or hot boiled ham"; in Wilkie Collins' The Legacy of Cain "he had a fowl for his dinner"; in Gaskell's Cousin Phillis there are "speckled fowls" pecking in the yard.

Nobody would call a chicken a fowl today, even less so when talking about the meat. And yet we still talk about pork, beef, etc. the same as ever. When did this terminology change, and why?

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    "Nobody would call a chicken a fowl today, even less so when talking about the meat". I do both. What does that make me? May 11, 2022 at 13:13
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    The quoted references to “fowls” probably don’t refer to chickens at all, but some other bird that may be raised or hunted and eaten, such as grouse, pheasant, or pigeon, as mentioned in a comment below. May 11, 2022 at 22:48
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    @MichaelHarvey: a fowl mouth? 😀
    – torek
    May 12, 2022 at 7:17
  • Hare is fowl and fowl is hare; Easter must be in the air.
    – Kaz
    May 13, 2022 at 14:32

2 Answers 2

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Chickens were called chicken before chickens were called fowl. Fowl emerged in early modern English, had a period of popularity, and then faded by the 20th century.

Chicken

Chicken goes back to Old English, where it referred to the young of gallus gallus domesticus - the chick (Oxford English Dictionary, "chicken, n."). By the late 14th century, chicken was used to refer to the adult chicken as well as the meat:

1381 Diuersa Servicia in C. B. Hieatt & S. Butler Curye on Inglysch (1985) 64 Nym kedys or chekenys & hew hem in morsellys.

c1405 (▸c1387–95) G. Chaucer Canterbury Tales Prol. (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 382 To boille the chiknes [c1415 Corpus Oxf. chikenes, c1430 Cambr. Gg.4.27 chekenys] with the Marybones.

This usage continued to the present day. Certainly there are quotes in the 18th and 19th century that show chicken didn't fade from fashion entirely at any point:

1760 T. Warton Idler 26 Jan. 25 The Company may..refresh themselves with cold Tongue, Chicken, and French Rolls.

1881 Judy 30 Mar. 155/1 Sloper had roast chicken for dinner.

Fowl

Fowl is also from Old English, but it referred to birds more generically ("fowl, n."). Only in the late 16th century did it emerge as a more specific term for domesticated birds like hens:

a1586 Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) iii. xxiii. sig. Xx3 As folkes keepe foule, when they are not fatte inough for their eating.

By the 17th century fowl could refer to meat as well:

1672 O. Walker Of Educ. i. xii. 160 A feast suggests..Fish, Foul, Flesh.

The OED notes that this usage isn't current except in set phrases like "fish, flesh, and fowl."

What happened to fowl?

So chicken stayed around after fowl dropped off in usage. When did that happen? Perhaps in the early 20th century. For example, here is an NGram showing that chicken appears more in its corpuses after 1900:

enter image description here

As a coincidence, the OED entry for "chicken, n." also includes this quote from around the same time, which may suggest some middle-class snootiness toward fowl:

1908 Westm. Gaz. 24 Jan. 3/1 It is a disastrous betrayal of middle-class origin to speak of a ‘chicken’ as a ‘fowl’. Whatever the age of the bird, the word must always be chicken.

One quote doesn't prove any causality, though. It is also possible that farmers and grocery stores themselves tended toward chicken to refer to the specific animal and its meat, whereas fowl persisted in a more generalized form to refer to wild fowl or water fowl.

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    Fowl is the section of fancy restaurant menus that contains those dishes that were prepared from the flesh of dinosaurs rather than that of mammals or that of fish or other seafood.
    – tchrist
    May 11, 2022 at 2:20
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    Frigaliment Importing v. BNS Intl Sales Corp. (1960), a breach-of-contract case, offers an interesting take on the issue of "chicken" v. "fowl." As the appellate court's opinion observes, "The issue is, what is chicken? [The Swiss] Plaintiff says 'chicken' means a young chicken, suitable for broiling and frying. [The U.S.] Defendant says 'chicken' means any bird of that genus that meets contract specifications on weight and quality, including what it calls 'stewing chicken' and plaintiff pejoratively terms 'fowl'. Dictionaries give both meanings, as well as some others not relevant here."
    – Sven Yargs
    May 11, 2022 at 7:55
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    Perhaps it indicates a period where "fowl" on the menu might mean grouse or pheasant or pigeon in addition to chicken. Those other birds were far more commonly eaten than they are now. Saying something is "fowl" allows you to be non-specific in a similar way to how these days you might see something sold as a "meat pie" without indicating what meat it is.
    – Eric Nolan
    May 11, 2022 at 9:10
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    @EricNolan agreed. And if I saw "fowl" today I'd assume some unspecified bird(s) were used to source the meat, and not solely chicken
    – Tristan
    May 11, 2022 at 16:03
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    Should it be "Gallus gallus domesticus," with the genus capitalized? May 11, 2022 at 21:11
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Could be a false assumption

You're assuming that all references to "fowl" refer to chickens. This is not true. Small game birds such as pheasant, partridge or pigeon could equally well be described as "fowl". They taste fairly similar, so there is less need to distinguish them when it comes to describing someone's meal.

As for "speckled fowls pecking in the yard", also consider that they could be guinea fowl which are almost always speckled and which were introduced to Britain in the 15th century. They were much less common than chickens, but the time of Gaskell were certainly well-known everywhere.

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    For that matter, pretty much all birds commonly domesticated or hunted for meat or eggs are referred to as "fowls", so ducks, geese, swans, turkeys, peacocks, ostriches, etc. would all qualify. May 12, 2022 at 13:34
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    @DarrelHoffman True enough. Most of those are a bit larger though (and often more expensive!) so they'd warrant a special mention at a meal. For birds which are just "the gardener shot something in the woods yesterday", they're a bit more commonplace. :)
    – Graham
    May 12, 2022 at 15:38
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    Not swans, if the story is set among commoners in the UK. Swans have a unique status in the UK, in that they are exclusive property of HM the Queen (with minor exceptions). These days that serves more as wildlife protection though. May 12, 2022 at 17:52
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    @user_1818839 Probably not turkeys in the UK either, since they're mostly new world birds, but I was just talking in general. Swans may be referred to in the US as "water fowl" even if you're not planning on eating them. May 13, 2022 at 14:12
  • @DarrelHoffman Capercaillie on the other hand (Tetrao urogallus, forest dweller) ... many years ago (too long to remember the reference) I saw an account of a Highland shooting trip that bagged one, leading to a highly anticipated and possibly unique banquet, only to find (on carving the fowl) that its exclusive diet of pine needles filled the room with an intense stink of turpentine, and the meat was quite inedible. May 13, 2022 at 14:19

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