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I really have looked, but the best I can come up with is this

To say that something is "for the birds" is to call it horse manure. Dating from the days of horse-drawn traffic, the expression is the answer to a child's question: "Mommy, what's all that stuff in the street?"

Perhaps I need to get out more (not that there's much of it around where I live), but I find it hard to believe that of all the things it might be known for, bird food should be considered an archetypal use for horseshit. Is that really the origin?

  • Gee, I always figured that it was referring to the GULLible people. – Hot Licks Feb 15 '17 at 22:18
8

From Phrases, Cliches, Expressions on www.joe-ks.com:

For the birds

Meaning: Something that is worthless.

Origin: Before the advent of cars, one could see and smell the emissions of horse-drawn wagons in New York. Since there was no way of controlling these emissions, they - or the undigested oats in them - served to nourish a large population of English sparrows. If you said that something was for the birds, you're politely saying that it's horse crap.

Example: His apology, after his deliberate and harmful actions, was for the birds in everyone else's eyes.

...and then there are the following two quotes from the Bible which if interpreted the same way, would put the usage way before the 20th century:

Isaiah 18:4 For this is what the Lord has told me: “I will wait and watch from my place, like scorching heat produced by the sunlight, like a cloud of mist in the heat of harvest.” 18:5 For before the harvest, when the bud has sprouted, and the ripening fruit appears, he will cut off the unproductive shoots with pruning knives; he will prune the tendrils. 18:6 They will all be left for the birds of the hills and the wild animals; the birds will eat them during the summer, and all the wild animals will eat them during the winter.

Jeremiah 16:4 They will die of deadly diseases. No one will mourn for them. And they will not be buried. Their dead bodies will lie like manure spread on the ground. They will be killed in war or die of starvation. And their corpses will be food for the birds and the wild animals.

(from the website: 10000birds.com as an answer to the question, "Why is 'for-the-birds' a bad thing?")

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  • 1
    Interesting. Your citations are from a 1999 translation, and the Isaiah passage is translated "unto" or "to the birds" in KJV and ASV, the most likely versions to feed into the phrase; KJV translates the Jeremiah "fowls", but ASV does use "food for the birds of the heavens". – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 21 '12 at 4:51
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    Apparently the Venerable Bede (673–735 AD) was sent to take over as top cleric at York. When he arrived and saw whatever derelict hovel was then on the site of what's now York Minster, he said it was fit only for Birds to build their Nests in. Looks like the Christian church has always held birds in low regard! – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 18:10
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According to the Phrase Finder,

It is US Army slang and originated towards the end of WWII … a shortened form of the vulgar version 'that's shit for the birds'. That suggests the derivation of the phrase which is the habit of some birds of pecking at horse droppings (a.k.a. road apples) in order to find seeds. Both versions were defined in an edition of American Speech from 1944:

That's for the birds. It's meaningless

Shit for the birds. Nonsense, drivel, irrelevant matter.

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  • Hmmm. I can't read the whole context, and it might be misdated - but to me at least, this 1935 instance of that's for the birds argues against shit for birds to eat. Seems more like an allusion to being for bird-brained/flighty people, or maybe airy-fairy/lightweight/castles in the air sort of stuff. I shall wait to see what else emerges. – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 0:05
  • Well of course, there would have been things which are intended for birds ("Is the new cage for the hamster or rabbit?" "Why, it's for the birds"), but at least online, I could only find the sense of "worthless things" in postwar works, when the phrase also sees a big uptick in popularity. books.google.com/ngrams/… – choster Dec 21 '12 at 0:20
  • Ah, right. First time around I couldn't see enough context - I just saw that "I told him it was a piece of silliness" occurred somewhere just before the search phrase, and assumed they were connected. I've now sneaked up on it from a different direction and discovered the speaker had apparently just flung away something she didn't want to eat. So you're quite right - it's just a literal usage. – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 0:34
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Looking at Google Books, I see proto-figurative uses of "for the birds" along the lines of:

By sword and famine shall they be consumed that their carcase may become food for the birds of the heavens and the beast of the earth

The implication here (and in several other similar cases) is not that the birds are feeding on horse shit, but rather on the dead bodies of those deemed unworthy of living.

There are also many references to passages such as Matthew 6:26:

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

These passages imply that birds are among the lowliest of all of God's creations, and thus anything that is "for the birds" would be lower than the lowest.

I'll also mention The Birds by Aristophanes, which contains at a very minimum, dozens of references to birds which could somehow apply (though I'll admit I've made no attempt to penetrate this work sufficiently to speculate how it might apply).

In my (admittedly brief) review of works up into the 70s, I did not see any direct uses of the figurative "for the birds" until 1960, and nowhere did I see a use which implied the birds were feeding on horse shit. (But of late Ngram "hits" in the early/mid 1900s have been severely hampered by the limitations imposed on displaying them, sorry to say.)

In my opinion (and I've seen nothing to contradict it, but lots of birds supporting the notion), it's most reasonable to regard "for the birds" as simply reflecting the fact that birds will feed on very tiny amounts of pretty much anything. (Consider, eg, the idiom chicken feed meaning "a trivial amount of money.) It's the sort of expression that would be invented tomorrow if it didn't already exist.

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The U.S. military origin theory

Most of the reference books I've consulted agree with Phrase Finder (cited in choster's answer) that the phrase arose in the later stages of World War II among U.S. servicemen. For example, Barbara Kipfer & Robert Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, fourth edition (2007) has this:

for the birds adj phr Inferior; undesirable, of small worth; LOUSY : [examples omitted] {WWII armed forces; a euphemistic shortening of shit for the birds, because some birds eat animal feces, it is the equivalent of bullshit or horseshit}

And from J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993):

for the birds to be regraded with contempt or scorn; not to be taken seriously; no good.Also (vulgar) shit for the birds. [First two cited occurrences:] 1944 [Robert] Olds, Helldriver Squadron[: The Story of Carrier Bombing Squadron 17 with Task Force 58] 98: That's something strictly for the birds. 1944 in A[merican] S[peech] XX 148: That's For The Birds. It's meaningless. ... Shit For The Birds. Nonsense, drivel, irrelevant matter.

The actual entry in American Speech (volume 20 of which appears to be dated 1945) reads like this:

SHIT FOR THE BIRDS. Nonsense, drivel, irrelevant matter. (A variant: THAT'S FOR THE BIRDS. It's meaningless.)

Lighter also cites this interesting instance:

1957 A[merican] S[peech] XXXII 240: In 1942, when I entered the U.S. Army, the disparaging term that's for the birds was in common use among officers and enlisted men. ... The metaphor alludes to birds eating droppings from horses and cattle.

If the person quoted here (fifteen years later) has his dates and language right, "for the birds" was already current in the U.S. Army in 1942. But no one has identified any print occurrences of the term, used in the relevant sense, from that year or earlier. As far as I know, Lighter's 1944 citation from Robert Olds is the earliest instance put forward in a published reference work.


The U.S. college origin theory

Another place where the expression seems to have been used fairly early on is on U.S. college campuses. The first three relevant matches that an Elephind newspaper search turns up are all from college newspapers—one from late 1943 and two from late 1944.

From A. X. L., "Reviewer Finds Combined Comic, Literary Magazine Lacks Punch of Former Editors," in the Columbia [University, New York] Spectator (November 12, 1943):

Most of the new issue, including an equestrian cover, is devoted to the football team, its past and present efforts. Nevertheless, much of the material, including said cover, is a rehash from older copies of the mag and has ripened, not improved, with age.

O[f the] more recent offerings, some are on a high level and a large portion is only fit for the birds. The usual sly, sharp quips aimed at Spectator and your reviewer in particular misf[i]re, possibly because the caustic wit of one W. W. Wager, recently fled to Harvard from the fair fields of Columbia, has either been omitted, deleted, or sidetracked. Wager does show up, however, with a brilliant poem on the 1934 Rose Bowl victory and a brief ode to Lou Little.

From Hank Johnston, "The Sport Wail," in the [Kent, Ohio] Kent Stater (December 12, 1944):

The girls of Lowry Hall are organizing a basketball team to raise funds for a new bird bath in the Atrium. "There's nothing cheep about us," the girls emphasized. When asked why they proposed to put a bird bath in the Atrium, the lovely ladies replied, "Someone told us that the Registrar's office was for the birds." This is good, clean fun.

And from "Campus Scout," in the [Urbana, Illinois] Daily Illini (December 20, 1944):

INFAMOUS FIRS[T] WORDS: "You say there'll be plenty of room on the 5:56—"

...

FAMOUS LAST WORDS: —Yep. For the Birds!"

The first instance is intriguing because—in a clearly figurative way—it uses the wording "fit for the birds." This could be a euphemistic play on "shit for the birds," or it could be an allusion not to the certain birds' eating habits but to the common practice of using newspaper to line the bottom of a birdcage, In any case, that is the earliest confirmed instance of "for the birds" that I'm aware of.


Conclusion

The U.S. Army and U.S. college campuses were closely bound during World War II, in part because a lot of patriotic college students enlisted after Pearl Harbor and in part because of the draft (which was already in place in 1940), so it is hardly surprising that "for the birds" appeared in both places early in the expression's existence.

An issue of Collier's Magazine from 1945 may be the earliest national mainstream publication to quote someone (in this case, a disgruntled serviceman) saying "That's for the birds!" A number of non-college newspapers in 1945 have matches for "for the birds," too—especially in the form "strictly for the birds."

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"That's for the birds" is related to calling someone a "birdbrain". Meaning you have a small brain, are foolish, silly, ignorant, gullible.

That's for the birds is to say that whatever you are referring to is for silly, foolish, ignorant and gullible people.

Now when did people start calling each other bird brain? I believe that originated from caveman times, lol. 5000 BC to 10,000 BC

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  • I'm sure this is relevant to the matter of how the expression gained / retained currency, but I don't think it directly relates to the origin. I might be wrong, of course, I only asked the question in the first place because I don't know. – FumbleFingers Apr 1 '16 at 16:49
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    This sounds like your opinion, or a folk etymology you heard somewhere. You see how the other answers cited relevant etymological authorities? That's what makes them credible, and why people upvoted them. Your answer is both competing with those, and contradicting both, and without any authorities to back you up, the only conclusion we can come to is "this guy is either making this up or just plain wrong", and consequently downvote. The remedy is to quote and cite relevant authorities in your answer, to give us a reason to believe, and to upvote. – Dan Bron Apr 1 '16 at 16:49

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