What’s In A Word: Stone the crows

I look into the origin of words or phrases that catch my interest

Stone the crows

MEANING
An exclamation of incredulity or annoyance.
Well, stone the crows - it’s five o’clock already!

I first heard the expression stone the crows a few weeks ago in reference to the Chinese revealing a snazzy new stealth jet fighter.

Bryan Suits, host of Dark Secret Place, a weekly radio talk show (Sunday afternoons on KFI 640AM Los Angeles), used stone the crows to characterize how surprised military analysts were when China publicly unveiled its J-20 advanced jet fighter, a harbinger of China’s growing military might.

Stone the crows! China has developed its own stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

Bryan’s two-hour show covers the War on Terror, diplomacy, and all things military. It’s an incredibly informative as well as entertaining show.

But, stone the crows, I’m drifting away from my main subject. Let’s see if I can get back on track:

To discover the meaning of this peculiar phrase, I went directly to The Phrase Finder, an indispensable website for anyone interested in the meaning and origin of phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions. Here’s what I found:

Origin of Stone the crows
”There have been a few attempts to explain the origin of this odd phrase,” says Gary Martin, creator of the Phrase Finder.  “A croze is the groove at the end of a wooden barrel that holds the end plate in place. It has been suggested that the expression was previously stow the croze, i.e. break open the barrel. I can find no supporting evidence for that idea though and have to consign it to the realms of folk-etymology. The more prosaic suggestion – that it alludes to the practice of throwing stones at crows – is much more likely.

“Crows were unwelcome guests at sheep farms as, given the chance, they will kill and eat newborn lambs, so the association with annoyance isn’t hard to see. The link in meaning to surprise isn’t obvious, but then there’s no particular reason to expect to find one. Stoning crows was a commonplace enough activity and calling it up into a phrase could have been done for no reason other than that the person who coined it just liked the sound of it.

“There are other expressions of surprise or annoyance like I’ll go to the foot of our stairs, strike me pink, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle or if that don’t take the rag off the bush. None of these have any sensible literal meaning and stone the crows is another to add to that list.”

That bit about crows killing and eating newborn lambs really rang a bell.

In a recent interview on NPR, author and humorist David Sedaris talked with host Steve Inskeep about his book, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, a collection of short stories in which Sedaris uses animals to point out, in a hilariously dark and biting way, familiar human foibles and personality traits.

One part of the interview really stuck with me. Here’s a transcript:

“You know, we have a farmer across the road from us in Normandy,” says Sedaris, who lives part time in that French province. “And he told me years ago that you always want your lambs to be born in the lambing shed, because when they’re born in the field, crows will come and pluck out the eyes of the newborn babies.”

Even Sedaris seems momentarily sobered by that mental picture. And then:

“So I wrote a story about that, because to pluck out the eyes of a baby lamb — I mean, that’s cold.

Sedaris goes on to relate a bit of the story in which a mama crow strikes up a conversation with a mama sheep about her newborn lamb.

A snippet of The Crow and the Lamb:

After circling a few times, the crow landed in the pasture and pretended to pick at something in the grass. The old ewe looked her over for a moment, then returned her attention to the newborn, who was receiving the first and probably the only bath of its life.

“Cute kid,” the crow called out. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The ewe sighed in the way of all parents who expect their baby’s sex to be obvious. “He’s a boy. My second.” Normally she was more sociable, but something about birds put her off—their uselessness, she supposed.

“Well, he’s an absolute lamb, if you don’t mind my saying so,” the crow said, and she hopped a bit closer. “Tell me, was it a natural childbirth?”

The ewe had wanted to remain aloof, but what with the subject matter—that is to say, herself—she found it impossible to hold out for more than a few seconds. “Oh, yes,” she said. “A hundred percent natural, but then again, that’s just my way. It makes it more ‘real’, if you know what I mean.”

The crow nodded. “And the placenta?”

“Oh,” the ewe said, “I ate it. Tasted like the devil, but I think it’s important for, you know, the bonding process.”

“Definitely,” the crow agreed, and she lowered her head to scowl into the grass. Nothing irritated her more than these high-and-mighty vegetarians who ate meat sometimes and then decided that it didn’t really count.

This story ends badly. And horrifically. Get the book to learn the grisly (and illustrated!) details. Also read the story Hello Kitty for the best send up I’ve ever read of the personalities and tired aphorisms encountered at any AA meeting.

Listen to the David Sidaris interview on NPR  here.

Pharoah: Stone the crows, Joseph!

I found these lyrics to a song titled “Stone the Crows” from the musical Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Pharoah:
Well stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said they did
Joseph, you must help me further
I have got a job for you
You will help me through this crisis
You shall be my number two

Hear a podcast of Bryan Suit’s Dark Secret Place radio show. Bryan’s military experience (wounded in Iraq), his self-described “jaw-dropping brilliance,” the in-depth research and knowledge he brings to each subject he covers on his show, Bryan’s stories about combat and military life, even his acerbic wit and twisted sense of humor, open up new perspectives. I get insights into world events, especially in the Middle East, that I just don’t find in mainstream media.

Facebook: The Dark Secret Place on KFI Los Angeles

6 thoughts on “What’s In A Word: Stone the crows

  1. Bonnie says:

    Steve, Thanks for the link to Phrase Finder! I will share it with my students.

  2. sblazak says:

    Hear David Sedaris read his story Hello Kitty on NPR’s This American Life.

    ACT TWO. HELLO KITTY.
    A story by David Sedaris about what happens when natural enemies meet, in an Alcoholics Anonymous program, in prison. This story appears in David’s collection of animal fables Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. (9 minutes)

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/309/cat-and-mouse

  3. Peter Mackinlay says:

    Steve, ‘stone the crows’ is/was not long ago a very common expression in Australia, indicating surprise, shock or incredulity. Used in much the same context as ‘well strike me dead (or lucky)’.

    Thanks for the ‘cherry-picking’ explanation; it was driving me mad trying to so complete the ‘… picking’ expression, and then, stone the crows, there it was!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks, Peter. Are there crows in Australia?

      Peter refers to another post I wrote, What’s In A Word: Cherry-pick.

      Have you ever heard the expression “cherry-pick” and thought, stone the crows, where did that come from? Well, so did I, so I looked into cherry-pick. http://sblazak.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/what%E2%80%99s-in-a-word-cherry-pick/

      I am cherry-picking my swearing. Now when I’m in traffic on Los Angeles freeways (where I spend half my life) and someone cuts me off or makes some bone-head move, instead of saying, “Jesus Christ! You stupid bastard!” I say, “Stone the crows!”

      I feel better not taking the Lord’s name in vain.

      • Peter Mackinlay says:

        David, I believe that the birds we in Aust call ‘crows’ are actually ravens and are not the same bird as English crows, just as our magpies (a striking black and white bird with a beautiful yodelling call) are nt the same as British magpies. We have plenty of ‘crows’. A popular brand of tomato sauce (ketchup) was ‘White Crow’.

  4. Steve says:

    Crows, at it again. More mischief and mayhem. This time at Venice Beach in Southern California …

    Crows Pose Comeback Threat For Endangered Birds In Venice

    VENICE (CBS) — It’s been no day at the beach for an endangered California shore bird hoping to stave off extinction for the last four decades.

    KNX 1070′s John Brooks reports the crow is the latest threat to the gains made by least terns along Venice Beach.

    In 1970, there were only about 600 least terns in the whole state, but today with protected nesting areas like the one at Venice Beach, there are about 13,000 of these small birds laying their eggs in the sand.

    The rapid growth of the 8-to-9-inch birds — which sport a signature black “crown” on their head, a snow-colored underside, orange legs, and a yellow bill with a black tip — has left the least tern on the verge of being de-listed and downgraded from endangered to threatened.

    But biologist Wally Ross with the California Fish and Game Department is concerned that crows are stealing and eating the eggs, leaving officials with few options.

    “There’s really not much that can be done here, it’s in such a highly visible area,” said Ross.

    Even with about 40 fenced-off nesting sites located along beaches statewide, crows frequently swoop down, grab an egg from the least tern, and eat it, as Ross himself observed at Venice Beach.

    “The birds are sitting in a very small little site and they become a target for predators, mostly crows,” he said.

    But while Ross said crows have been killed at more remote locations to spare the least tern’s eggs, that strategy has not be considered as an option at Venice.

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