Hens and chickens


There are a number of words in English for the domesticated fowl Gallus gallus domesticus:

  • Chicken – general word for the birds and their meat
  • Cock / Rooster – adult male
  • Cockerel – adult male under a year old
  • Hen -adult female
  • Pullet – young female
  • Chook – general word for the birds used in Australia, New Zealand and some varieties of British English
  • Broiler – a type of chicken raised specifically for meat production

Chicken originally referred only to the chicks of this species, and the general term for them was domestic fowl or fowl. It comes from the Old English word cicen (also written cycen and ciecen) and is probably a diminutive of cocc.

Cock comes from the Old English cocc (male bird) and is thought to be an imitation of the sounds made by birds.

Rooster is derived from to roost, from the Old English hróst (perch / roost), and was originally roost cock in the 17th century but lost the second half of the phrase thanks to Puritan influence.

Hen comes from the Old English henn, which can be traced back to the PIE root *kan (to sing), via the West Germanic *khannjo, the feminine form of *khan(e)ni (male fowl, cock – lit. “bird who sings for sunrise”). In Old English hana was cock/rooster.

Pullet comes from the Latin pullus (a young animal or bird) via the Old French poulette (chicken), a diminutive poule (hen), and the Anglo-Norman pullet (chick / young bird).

Cockerel is just a diminutive of cock.

Chook probably comes from the British dialect words chuck or chucky (chicken) and is imitative of the sound made by chickens.

Broiler comes from the Old French bruller (to broil, roast).

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin.

9 Responses to Hens and chickens

  1. Meg says:

    “Broiler” is among the typical Eastgerman words that people raised in the western parts of Germany usually don’t understand. Just as in English it means a chicken raised for meat production. It also refers to the meat itself.

  2. Yenlit says:

    There’s also ‘capon’ – a cockerel gelded and fattened for the table – and of course the general term for chickens ‘poultry’.

  3. Petréa Mitchell says:

    In the US at least, “poultry” also includes turkeys.

  4. LAttilaD says:

    Hungarian has dedicated words to call the adult males, adult females, children and castrated males of most household animals, and a collective term for any animal of the race. The words analogously apply to non-household animals, too. Do other languages use such an inventory of agrarian terms?

  5. Halabund says:

    Attila: Hungarian doesn’t actually have a general word for ‘chicken’. There’s one for hen, rooster, capon, chick, but not a general one.

  6. How about the “chickenlings”? Is “chick” the most common word?

  7. Yenlit says:

    I’d say “chick” is more common than “chickling” although personally I prefer the latter and I would say it’s more likely used in the plural “chicklings”.

  8. Tommy says:

    Don’t forget about the Gamecocks!

  9. The Ridger says:

    To answer LAttilaD – most people who deal extensively with things have an expanded vocabulary for them. English and Russian, the languages I know best, have the extended set of terms you describe for domestic animals, and English has a few wild animals with their own sets (stag / doe / fawn, for instance). Russian, thanks to its morphology, seems to have even more at first blush, but elephant/elephantess/elephantyoung aren’t really what you mean, are they?

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