The Origin of the Expression “Guess what? Chicken Butt!”
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!”
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy subscribing to our new Daily Knowledge YouTube channel, as well as:
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- What is a Kudo, as in “Kudos to You”?
- How a Tax on Chickens Made it So There are Very Few Truck Models Available in the U.S.
- Where the F-Word Came From
- Why Chicken Goes Bad So Quickly
- 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?
- Carcass weight
- Chicken Butt
- Chickens Ground Up
- Egg Farmers Stop Grinding Chicks
- Financial Risks of Contract Chicken Farmers
- Historical Retail Prices
- How 9 Cuts of Meat Were Named
- More Information Than You Require
- Morris County Library Historic Prices
- Porgy & Bess
- Pork Butt
- ‘Chickenbutt’ and Other Lessons from Grandma
- Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Black Language
- The Married Land
- Psychoanalytic Study of the Child – Volume 25 page 221
- Today’s Education Volumes 62-64 – National Education Association of the United States, 1973
- The Black Nation – Volumes 3-5 page 56, 1983
- Charles G. Bell
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