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I initially found it in a 17th century English-Dutch Dictionary, page 37 enter image description here

I then found it in https://www.bartleby.com/

As bare as a bird’s tail. 1361 Twelve Mery Gestys of the Widow Edyth, 1525, by Walter Smith, or Old Engl. Jest Books, iii. 102. but I could not locate those sources or find out what it meant.

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    The meaning is easy to find; it means "very bare". I suspect you are asking why a bird's tail is considered bare, when most have feathers. That is more interesting but as yet I can't find an answer.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27, 2022 at 14:23
  • It's a forgotten simile, never used nowadays. Sep 27, 2022 at 16:13
  • 2
    I couldn't find anything about the "etymology", and most instances in Google Books are actually just lists (of English proverbs & sayings). But most of the "use rather than mention" instances were clearly using it in the sense of the cupboard was bare (no food), rather than "nakedness". So I'm guessing it derives from the idea that you wouldn't get much to eat if your portion of the Sunday roast chicken / swan / pheasant was the tail. Sep 27, 2022 at 16:50
  • @FumbleFingers. That is very helpful, thank you.
    – Bob516
    Sep 27, 2022 at 19:55
  • @KateBunting I know it is antiquated. I'm working on some historical fiction set at that time.
    – Bob516
    Sep 27, 2022 at 19:56

1 Answer 1

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Evidently, the original expression was somewhat coarser than "as bare as a bird's tail." Bartlett Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (1968) has this entry for the older wording:

As clean (bare) as a bird's arse. c1475 Mankind 18.482: Yt ys as clen as a byrdis ars. 1525 More Heresyes 238 B{11-2} As bare as a byrdes arse. 1546 Heywood D 90.60. ...

The following excerpts from Early English Books Online tend to corroborate Whiting on this point, although I couldn't turn up anything on the 1475 source that he cites.

From Thomas More, A Dyaloge of Syr Thomas More Knyghte: One of the Counsayll of Oure Souerayne Lorde the Kyng [and] Chauncellour of Hys Duchy of Lancaster (1529) has this wording:

By my trouthe q your frend these thre thyngys came meryly to passe / and I wold not for a good thynge but I had herd theym. For here may a man se that mysse vnderstandynge maketh mysse reportyng. And a tale that ••eeth thorowe many mouthes / catcheth many new fethers / whyche whan they be pulled away agayne / leue hym as pylled as a coote and somtyme as bare as a byrdys ars. But I thyn[k]e veryly for all thys there was grete euydence gyuen agaynst the chaūceler / for he was at length endyghted of Hunnys deth / and was a grete whyle in pryson / and in cōclusyō neuer durst abyde the tryal of twelue men for hys acquytayle / but was fayn by frendshyp to gete a {per}dō. But I beseche you for my myndys sake / shewe me what thought your selfe therin.

From a 1540 translation of Gulielmus Gnaphaeus, The Comedye of Acolastus (1540):

SANNIO. These same (Lais and Acolastus) the vnfethered louer, is made a besecher or an humble suter vnto deafe Lais. i. the louer whiche is pulled of all the fethers he had, or whiche hath neuer a fether lefte hym. i. whiche is lefte as bare as a byrdes arse, is become a croucher and kneler vnto Lais, whiche playeth the deathe woman, or whiche sayth, I wold to god I harde you. O you good folkes, I praye you helpe me, that he maye pay his dettes, or that he may paye me that he oweth me.

(I haven't previously encountered the repeated use of "i." as a form of punctuation, as seems to occur in the preceding text, and I don't know precisely what it is supposed to convey.)

And from John Heywood, A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue Compacte in a Matter Concernyng Two Maner of Mariages (1546):

Suche dryfts draue he, from yll to wars and wars, / Tyll he was as bare as a byrds ars. / Money, and money worth, dyd so mysse hym, / That he had not nowe, one peny to blysse hym. / Whiche foreseene in this woman wisely waying, / That meete was to staie somewhat for hir staying, / To kepe yet one messe for Alyson in store. / She kepte one bag, that he had not sene before.

The expression was still in at least occasional proverbial use at least as late as John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs (1670):

As bare as a birds arse.

But in the 1678 edition of his book, Ray was moving toward a different simile:

As bare as a birds arse, or as the back of my hand.

And by the 1737 edition of Ray's Proverbs, the original was gone:

As bare as the back of my hand.

Other early similes of the form "as bare as" that appear in EEBO search results include "as bare as stones," "as bare as Job," and "as bare as a new-shorn sheep."

The oldest EEBO match for the seemingly euphemistic "bare as a bird's tail" occurs in Bartholomew Traheron, A Warning to England to Repente and to Tvrne to God from Idolatrie and Poperie by the Terrible Exemple of Calece, Giuen the 7. of March. Anno. D. 1558 (1558):

Thy ruler is disdainful, and so proude, that to be the wife of an emperors sonne, & for hope that she shal once be called my ladie emperesse, she is contente not only to make the as bare as a birdes taile, but also vnnaturally to betraie the hir natiue countree, & make the subiecte to a popish proude, vnmerciful, and vngodlie nation. She is despiteful, cruel, bloodie, wilful, furious, gileful, stuffed with painted processes, with si¦mulation, & dissimulatiō, void of honestie, void of vpright dealinge, voide of al seme∣lie vertues.

The comes Walter Smith, XII. Mery Iests, of the Wyddow Edyth This Lying Widow, False and Craftie, Late i[n] Engla[n]d, Hath Deceiued Many (1573):

But syrs quod she, is none of you a clark? / I must haue a quytance made for my rent / To a knaue which me sore repent: / That euer he occupyed any ground of mine, / I am sure be hath of Oxen and kyne / An hundred heds: and much stuffe besyde / And ye arrand knauee whē I com he wil him hyde / Makyng him as bare as a byrds tayle, / And when I speake with hym he wyl not fayle / To tel me a tale hinching and pinching. / And in faith Mosteris I haue no good thing. / To make you there: but it doth me good to se you. / But if I could tell in what wise and how / To auoyd the heynard, he should not long abyde.

As for why English people in the 1400s and 1500s considered a bird's vent (to use the modern term) to be noteworthily—indeed, proverbially—bare, my guess is that they were simply commenting on the fact that most of the rest of a typical bird is clothed (as it were) in feathers. Obviously, any such practical sense that the original expression may have had was lost when tail supplanted arse as the point of reference.

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    a+ for superior effort
    – banuyayi
    Sep 28, 2022 at 6:21

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