“To Ruffle Feathers”–An Etymological Lesson at the Zoo

To “ruffle someone’s feathers” is defined as “to do something to cause confusion, agitation, irritation, or annoyance in that person.”  Being a city girl, I never gave the etymology of the phrase any thought until I was visiting the National Zoo yesterday and found the flamingos in an uproar.  Two human engineers had entered their enclosure to deal with some problem in the enclosure’s little artificial stream, and every time one of the humans came in or out, flamingos fled towards a far corner, flamingos made very loud noises and pecked at each other, and flamingos raised their wings as if to shepherd the rest away from the perceived danger.  Each time their agitation began, the flamingos’ very neat feathers rose like heads of hair vigorously rumpled until they stand messily on end and in need of a good combing.  As the engineers worked in their one spot and the flamingos calmed, their feathers settled neatly against their bodies, only to ruffle again when the engineers moved. Thus, the engineers literally ruffled the flamingos’ feathers.

Irrelevant but interesting addendum:  there were also a large number of pintail ducks treading in the enclosure’s stream.  Unlike the flamingos, they were unflappable.  As the engineers worked, the ducks simply swam, en masse, to the side of the stream.  They then waddled calmly out and stood in the grass facing the stream, attentively, but quietly waiting for the engineers to complete their work, at which time, the ducks reentered the water.

Add this as a random occurrence that can at some time inform one’s writing.


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