The Origin of the Expression “Guess what? Chicken Butt!”

Mark R. asks: Where did the whole kids thing of saying “Guess what?” and answering with “chicken butt!” come from?

chicken-buttsAn appropriate response to nearly any rhetorical playground question from “What’s up?” to “Guess what?”, “chicken butt” has been an important part of the childish lexicon for many decades.

The retort’s origins are usually speculated to have come from a practice common to street merchants when they would call out what they were offering and how much it cost. One particularly delicious item was advertised as:

Chicken butt! Five cents a cut!

Butt, in this sense didn’t mean the back end of the bird, but, rather, its shoulder. A long time ago, butchers would pack less desirable cuts, like shoulders, into barrels, either to store them or ship them. Barrels like these had been called butts since the late 14th century, after the Modern French word for a barrel or wineskin, botte and the Latin buttis (for cask). Over time, the term was applied to the cuts of meat within the barrels as well.

It’s hard to verify when a chicken shoulder cost $0.05, although historical data on the cost of a whole chicken is relatively easy to find. For instance, during the Roaring Twenties, hens were sold for between $0.36 and $0.38 per pound (about $4.43 today), but at the height of the Great Depression, the price of a hen had dropped to just $0.21 per pound (about $3 today).

One theory as to why the expression became so popular is tied to the 1930s. In 1935, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess debuted, and in it, Maria compares Sporting Life to a chicken, invoking the merchants’ chant:

I hates yo’ struttin’ style,

Yes sir, and yo’ god d*mn silly smile

an yo’ ten cent di’mons an’ yo’ fi’ cent butts. Oh, I hates yo’ guts.

All that said, as far as I can find, there is no documented evidence of anything to the effect of “What’s up?” or “Guess what?” (or any of the many variants) followed by “Chicken Butt!” until Mississippian Charles G. Bell’s 1962 novel The Married Land.  In it, we find:

…but what as a boy he had spoken with boys, white and colored, when they ran and fought together (“What, what, chicken butt, come around the house and lick it up.)

Disregarding a rather interesting, though seemingly unrelated, 1970 work Psychoanalytic Study of the Child – Volume 25 in which one Ruth S. Eissler describes a girl named Naomi who uses some peculiar terms such as “chicken-butt” to mean “sex” and “cookie” to mean “vagina” and is described as “confusingly using words that she senses are somehow inaccurate…”, next up in the known documented instances of this phrase we have a rather telling instance appearing in the 1973 book Black Language by Malachi Andrews and Paul T. Owens. On page 73 it contains the following entry:

Chicken Butt- When someone calls out, “What?”, because they didn’t hear, a reply might be the rhyme, “Chicken Butt.” It means forget it; I am not going to repeat it. Junior flip usage.

In that same year, it was noted in the National Education Association of the United States’ Today’s Education Volumes 62-64 that at least some children were using “chicken butt” as a slang insult: “‘Mrs. Pratt, come check me off.’ If I paid no attention and helped somebody else, he might yell again, ‘Mrs. Pratt!’ If I still paid no attention, he might mutter something about my being a ‘chicken butt.'”

Following that up, the next documented instance I could find of the general phrase in question was in the 1983 work The Black Nation. In Volumes 3-5 of that work, the following appears:

…chicken cacciatore, chicken-alla-wendy, chicken — alla-king ir poor folks eat chicken feet, chicken necks chicken gizzards, chickenstew (with no chicken) chicken backs SAY WHAT!? CHICKEN BUTT!!!!!!!!!!!  don’t you wish that all rich folks would turn into a plucked chicken & fly into a vat of hot grease & let us poor folks eat good for a while…

So, from the documented evidence (and quite a bit of somewhat less reliable personal anecdotes), it would seem as if, whether actually connected to any early 20th century merchant slang or not, the phrase and its variants originated in southern black-American culture at least as early as the 1960s and probably a bit before. However, if the documented evidence is any indication, this phrase didn’t catch on among a wider audience until sometime in the late 1970s and 1980s, at which point it soon became a somewhat ubiquitous expression among all American youth, along with variants like “Guess what?” and rhyming offshoots like “Guess why?  Chicken thigh!” and “Guess who?  Chicken tattoo!”

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Bonus Facts:

  • Several years ago, an undercover video surfaced showing egg hatchery workers glibly tossing baby chicks into a grinder alive. An accepted industry practice called “instantaneous euthanasia,” it accounts for the slaughter of 200,000,000 male chicks each year (the males were culled because they couldn’t produce eggs and supposedly would be prohibitively expensive to raise as meat chickens).  While acknowledging the situation wasn’t ideal, a spokesman for The United Egg Producers, Mitch Head, noted, “There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens. If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we’re happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need.”  He also noted that, while seemingly brutal, the use of the grinder “is the most instantaneous way to euthanize chicks.”
  • However, things are looking up for male chicks… kind of. Technology has advanced so that it is possible to detect the sex of a chick early on while it’s still in the egg. Expected to be commercially viable within four years, the egg producers industry group has recently announced that by 2020, they should be able to end the practice of grinding newborn baby chickens to death. Instead, they’ll just sell the fertilized eggs as, well, eggs. So the question to you, dear readers, is this- is it better to exist somewhat consciously for an exceptionally short while only to have your fate be to get snuffed out in a grinder shortly after emerging from your shell, or to never really exist at all on any conscious level?
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  • Simone

    This proves kids were more literate than my grandparents believed back in the 70’s.

  • J. F. Gecik

    I am going to post two separate messages, because such a thing is called for by the very surprising contents of this article.

    “[‘Guess what?’ ‘Chicken butt’] has been an important part of the childish lexicon for many decades.”

    I strongly disagree, in two ways!
    1. As the article states, there is no documentation of people saying those words until 1962 — i.e., 54 years ago. THAT, my friends, is not “many decades,” but only a few decades.
    2. I am about to turn 65, and I have NEVER heard those words — “Guess what? Chicken butt” — in my entire life, despite being intensely interested in language (standard and colloquial English, Latin, Spanish, and other foreign tongues) for almost all of the last sixty years. I would bet that more than half the people in the U.S. have never heard those words. Perhaps the number is as high as 90%!

    By saying that the phrases in question have been “an important part of the childish lexicon for … decades,” the writer wrongly implies that “Guess-what-Chicken-butt” [GwCb] has been in widespread use among all children. She then proceeds to reveal (apparently without even realizing it herself) that it began among black children in the deep South — perhaps in the 1950s or 1960s. After the 1962 reference, she cannot find another one older than 1983!

    Without doing any research with which I could prove my suspicion, I have to suspect that “GwCb” has been heard and used very little, outside of ghettos, for some years thereafter. Perhaps it was then used in some comedy series on TV (which I never saw) and began to be used a bit more widely. All in all, I have to say that it seems very odd for the writer of this article to focus on such an obscure thing and blow it ‘way out of proportion.

    • Daven Hiskey

      Child of the 1980s here, and not from the South, but Washington State- “Guess What? Chicken Butt!” and its variants were well represented in school during my formative years in the late 1980s and 1990s, both in the west and eastern sides of said state.

      • Ryan

        Same in Texas too. I was born in ’74. Kids used to say the “What’s up? Chicken Butt!” all the time in the 80’s. A rejoinder was also, “Turkey squat. That’s what!”

      • Rob

        Interesting. I grew up in Seattle in the 70s and 80s and never heard the phrase until I moved to Georgia. Don’t hear it in Florida either.

    • Kaya

      It’s even been in widespread use in Saskatchewan, Canada since the 90’s for sure – I was born in ’86 and definitely remember using the phrase. Don’t really remember the ’80’s so I can’t vouch for that era, but given the high usage of it during my childhood, I’d have to say most of the older siblings likely used it throughout the ’80’s. Kids like words that rhyme, and kids like butts – chances are pretty good they’d have figured it that “butt” rhymes with “what” regardless of where they grew up. Even white kids in the suburbs like rhymes….and butts…..

    • doovey

      Learned it from my Younger cousins in Minnesota in the late 60s

  • Kay

    I remember hearing it in around 1980, it was the year I returned to the States, so it possibly could have been around earlier. This was first heard in Southern California.

  • J. F. Gecik

    And now for my second message …

    In the “Bonus Facts,” the writer of the article (or someone else at “Today I Found Out”) first mentions the use of a grinder to slaughter large numbers of male chicks … and then mentions the predicted (c. 2020), pre-hatching destruction of eggs bearing male chicken embryos.

    Then the following words are stated: “So the question to you, dear readers, is this: Is it better to exist somewhat consciously for an exceptionally short while only to have your fate be to get snuffed out in a grinder shortly after emerging from your shell, or to never really exist at all on any conscious level?”

    What is being asked here is not a matter that can be answered with scientific facts alone, because it involves things that cannot be measured by instruments or perceived by the senses. Answering requires recourse to philosophy. I am going to try to reply by referring to basic points that have been arrived at, over the course of millennia, by philosophers. The following principles have gradually (over recent millennia) come to be believed by the vast majority of human beings:

    1. Human beings have civil rights, directly from the beginning of their biological existence (which can be either at the moment of completed fertilization of a human ovum or at the moment of completed twinning).

    2. One of a human being’s civil rights is the right to life — that is, the right of an innocent person not to be killed by himself nor by another person (right from the beginning of his existence to the moment of natural death). Thus, every form of murder is (or should be) illegal. A person is innocent and has a right to live REGARDLESS of the degree of his consciousness (i.e., not just his waking consciousness, but also his degree of self-consciousness, his ability to perceive with senses, his ability to think, etc.) That is why a single-celled human being has a right to life, just as a 120-year-old person with Alzheimer’s Disease has a right to life.

    3. Plants and animals are not human beings. They do not have civil rights. They do not exist for their own ends, but rather to serve mankind. They exist to provide various goods (beauty, entertainment, food, clothing, etc.) to people.

    4, While animals do not have civil rights, they are not garbage to be simply thrown away without a second thought. Human beings have certain duties toward them, including the responsibilities to take proper care of them, not to abuse/torture them, not to neglect them, and not to kill them unnecessarily.

    The questioner (at “Today I Found Out”) asks, “Is it better to exist somewhat consciously for an exceptionally short while only to have your fate be to get snuffed out in a grinder shortly after emerging from your shell, or to never really exist at all on any conscious level?”

    Let us consider that question first with regard to a human being.

    1. The worst thing is for a human being (who “should” have existed) never to have existed — i.e., for him/her not to have been conceived.

    2. Once a human being does exist, however, then it is wrong — extremely wrong — for anyone, including the person himself, to try to judge whether or not his life is worth living [based on whether his “quality of life” is (or would be) good or bad, whether he is perhaps permanently unconscious, whether he is productive or unproductive, whether he is mentally or physically handicapped, whether he interferes with someone else’s life, etc.]. Attempting to judge any of those kinds of things can lead to the premature death of an innocent person (by abortion, suicide, or murder) — and such a death is unjustifiable, because it is contrary to the deceased person’s civil right to life.

    Now let us consider the TIFO question with regard to an animal, such as a chick, whether still in its egg or recently hatched.

    1. Unlike the case of a human being, it does not matter at all whether any specific chick comes into existence or not.

    2. Once a chick does come into existence, it is never truly “conscious” of its own existence in the same way that a human being is conscous of his own existence. A chick (or chicken) is totally incapable of reflecting mentally about what it is, what it has done, and what it could some day do. It is “awake and aware” only in to the extent that it can use its senses and act upon its genetically coded instincts.

    3. Despite not having a human kind of consciousness, a chick (after a certain level of development) can sometimes experience pain. Pain itself is not always bad. It is actually associated with good things in some circumstances (e.g., receiving an injection or surgery, having an awareness that one has been cut, bruised, burned, etc.). Therefore, inflicting momentary pain, even on a human, is not automatically something to be condemned.

    4. Humans have always been aware of the fact that animals that they slaughter are capable of experiencing pain, but that has not kept them from doing the slaughtering, because (a) animals do not have rights and (b) humans have the right to eat them. Because of humans’ empathy for any living thing that it is pain, however, they have always sought to find ways to kill animals in the most painless manner possible.

    Based on all of the above, I would conclude the following:

    1. In theory, there is nothing illegal or unethical about slaughtering male chicks if a hatchery has no other alternative (e.g., would become bankrupt by raising them).

    2. The point at which a male chick is slaughtered (whether still in the egg or after hatching) is ethically irrelevant.

    3. In keeping with the principle that humans should avoid all unneccesary infliction of pain on animals: (a) hatcheries ought to try to sell, or even give away, their hatched male chicks to anyone that wants them (for breeding, raising and slaughtering, feathers, etc.); (b) it would be better to destroy unhatched eggs if some or all of the pain would thereby be removed.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts.

  • jess

    and I’m from Australia and have never ever heard the phrase “Guess what? Chicken butt.”

  • Cindy

    I was born in 1968, my father was born in 1940 in South Dakota, drove cattle down to, amd them lived in, Missouri until he went into the Navy. I only ever heard my father use the phrase, and I don’t recall him using it pre 1980…he would say it if I didn’t hear him and said “what?” He would reply with “what, what, chicken butt?” He used to know all sorts of rhymes of cowboys and country folk (especially where you replace what would normally be a dirty word with an innocent word that rhymed). I believe replacing real words with rhyming slang is historically common to Cockney speakers. BTW my dad was white:)

  • Mike in CT

    Chickens don’t have shoulders!