‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,’ Atticus – one of my favourite characters of all time – lays down some truths for his children in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I have no idea what the great man is on about, but in terms of the phrase ‘naked as a Jay bird’ goes, I believe that I can do a little better.
If one is as naked as Jay bird one is entirely nude, usually in a public setting without embarrassment and sometimes with a humorous connotation. It was tricky to get to the root of this one (a sound suggestion by loyal reader Sarah Jane) but after some digging I discovered that it was the American equivalent of the good old fashioned British phrase ‘naked as a Robin’. Now we’ve all heard of that one, haven’t we? You crafty Americans – well played, but you won’t pull the wool over the eyes of this soldier.
The difficulty is – of course – that Robins and Jay birds are not remotely naked, in fact they both have a fine plumage. This seemed to stump the good people at Yahoo answers and they withdrew from me their support. In spite of this crushing blow suffered so early in the campaign, I persevered. After a sly spot of skirmishing on Google I found out that Robins and Jay birds are born with only the lightest of downy fluff; that is to say that they are born almost naked. Throw in the fact that as a result of this wardrobe malfunction these birds are, like most nesting birds, rather helpless and pathetic before they reach maturity, and you have your metaphoric link as well.
Why the Jay bird / Robin in particular? I have no idea. Maybe in the case of the Jay bird it has something to do with the fact that they are rascally little devils who often try to tip each other out of the nest before the appropriate time. This behaviour can hardly have gone unnoticed and perhaps it is the Jay bird’s celebrity status that led to his meteoric rise to the summit of informal English language.
Interestingly a ‘Jay’ in American slang refers to a hick, or simpleton (perhaps in English a ‘country bumpkin’). I wonder whether there is any link between the human and bird forms. While we are on the subject, the term ‘Jay walker’ to mean ‘a fool who crosses the streets without any regard for proper regulation or safety’ looks to have originated via a similar route. And so the plot thickens…