Nora Lewin, University of New York
10 April 2010
The phrase “sticks in my craw” is commonly employed to express discomfort, referring to the “craw” or stomach (OED, n. 2a) and something sticking into it, whether internally (e.g. something imbibed, like food) or externally (e.g. a stick, a finger). This common misinterpretation obscures both the origin and history of the expression, and its full emotional impact.
The correct phrase is “sticks in my crow.” “Craw” is a modern corruption of the word “crow,” as in the frequent use of “craw” as verb to describe the sound of crows (OED, v. 2).
In medieval and early modern Europe, it was not only fashionable for members of the aristocracy to own hawks and falcons, but also to keep domesticated crows. Prior to the introduction of parrots and similar birds from the New World into Europe, the crow (and the European starling) were known for their ability to be trained to mimic human speech and song.
Crows could also be trained for hunting, although they remained less popular than hawks and falcons. Nonetheless, their efficacy in hunting squirrels and other small prey was the subject of learned treatises: for example, chapter XV (“Rapacious Birds”) of De arte venandi cum avibus (The Art of Falconry), a popular medieval manual on the subject composed by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in the thirteen century, considers the crow to be “the equal” of other birds of prey.
Able to trained to speak, perform, and hunt, the crow (like falcons and hawks) was highly prized by members of the court for their symbolic capital and no expenses were spared in their breeding and training. This association between crows and the honor and prestige of their aristocratic owners is where the phrase “sticks in my crow” finds its origin. Like throwing down the gauntlet, harassing another gentleman’s crow was an affront to his honour; to injure or even kill another gentleman’s crow was the ultimate insult. Since the rapier was the weapon of the court, maiming a crow was usually accomplished by stabbing. Hence, “sticks in my crow” emerged as an expression of denigration and the loss of honor.
There are numerous historical instances of this usage. Shakespeare, for example, makes reference to the expression in the so-called “bad quarto” of The Merchant of Venice (1608). In Act 3 scene 1, when informed that his daughter has absconded with his ducats and sold his turquoise ring for a monkey, Shylock tells Tubal that “Thou stick’st a dagger in my crowe, I shall neuer see my golde againe, fourescore ducats at a sitting, fourescore ducats.”
References and Further Reading
- Boehrer, Bruce. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.
- Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. De Arte Venandi cum Avibus. Translated into English as The Art of Falconry. Ed. and trans. Casey A. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1943.
- Grindol, Diane, and Tom Roudybush. Teaching Your Bird to Talk. New York: Howell, 2003.
- Keller, Michael J. “The New World of Birds.” Sixteenth Century Studies 1 (1970): 45-56.
- Lieberman, Philip. “Parrots and Other ‘Talking’ Birds.” Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain. New Haven: Harvard UP, 2000.
- Norris, Evelyn. “Craw: An Etymological Note.” Proceedings of the British Philological Society. n.s. 6 (1983): 133-35.
- Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. London, 1608.
- Yapp, W. B. Birds in Medieval Manuscripts. London: British Library, 1981.
Lewin, Nora. “Sticks in my Craw.” Sound and Furry: An Online Journal of Occasional Brief Essays on Idiom and Phraseology. 10 April 2010. http://www.soundandfurry.org.uk/craw/