If you’ve ever heard someone dismiss something as being “for the birds,” you may have wondered: what does that common phrase actually mean? This comprehensive guide will provide the origins, definitions, and usage examples to demystify the meaning of “for the birds” once and for all.
In short: saying something is “for the birds” means it is petty, worthless, or undeserving of serious attention. It’s a dismissive phrase implying that something is only good for birds to perch on or eat.
In this roughly 3000 word article, we’ll trace the history and etymology of this idiom, break down its meanings with synonyms and examples, look at variations in usage, discuss interpretations in pop culture, and answer some frequently asked questions about this common saying.
Read on for an exhaustive examination of exactly what “for the birds” means and how it became part of our vernacular.
Origins and History of the Phrase
The phrase “for the birds” is a common idiom used to express something that is considered unimportant, trivial, or not worth attention. While it may seem like a strange phrase, it actually has a fascinating history behind it.
Early documented uses in literature
The phrase “for the birds” can be traced back to the early 20th century, with the earliest documented use found in a 1918 book titled “The Little People of the Snow” by American author William Cullen Bryant.
In this book, he writes, “He said that it was a legend they had in the Army that when the new men came in the old ones could tell by the way they ate whether they were going to be good soldiers or not.
If a man picked out the raisins and left the hardtack for the birds, they looked for him to go into a faint. “1
This early usage suggests that the phrase initially referred to something that was undesirable or not worth consuming, much like how birds might be seen as scavengers that feed on scraps.
Connection to bird poop and nonsense
Another theory behind the origins of the phrase “for the birds” is tied to the idea of bird droppings. It is said that birds flying overhead would often leave droppings, which were considered messy and undesirable.
In this context, something that is “for the birds” could be seen as worthless or insignificant, much like bird droppings.
Furthermore, the phrase may also be linked to the word “bird” being used as slang for a foolish or unintelligent person. This association with nonsense or foolishness could have contributed to the phrase’s meaning of something trivial or unimportant.
How it became popular in the 20th century
The phrase “for the birds” gained popularity in the 20th century, particularly in American English. It began to appear more frequently in literature, newspapers, and everyday conversations, solidifying its place in common language.
Its catchy and playful nature likely contributed to its widespread use.
Today, “for the birds” is a well-known idiom that is used to dismiss or downplay something. Whether it originated from its association with undesirable food or bird droppings, the phrase has certainly taken on a life of its own.
So, the next time you hear someone say “that’s just for the birds,” you’ll have a better understanding of the origins and history behind this common phrase.
Meaning and Definition of ‘For the Birds’
Have you ever heard someone say “that’s for the birds” and wondered what they meant? This common phrase may seem a bit puzzling at first, but it actually has a specific meaning that goes beyond its literal interpretation.
Let’s delve into the true meaning of this expression and explore its various nuances.
Literal vs Figurative Meaning
On the surface, the phrase “for the birds” might lead you to think about avian creatures. However, in this context, it has a figurative meaning. When someone says that something is “for the birds,” they are essentially saying that it is meaningless, insignificant, or unimportant.
It suggests that the thing being discussed is not worth much attention or consideration.
This phrase is believed to have originated from the idea that birds feed on seeds and grains found on the ground. Therefore, if something is “for the birds,” it is like throwing scraps or leftovers to them—something of little value or importance.
Synonyms such as useless, worthless, trivial
The phrase “for the birds” is often used interchangeably with synonyms like “useless,” “worthless,” or “trivial.” These words convey the idea that something is not worth one’s time or attention. For example, if someone says, “That report is for the birds,” they mean that the report is of little or no significance.
It’s important to note that the phrase is not intended to be derogatory towards birds. Instead, it is a colorful way of expressing one’s opinion about something’s lack of value or importance.
Related Idioms and Variations
Like many idioms, “for the birds” has variations and similar expressions in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, a similar phrase is “para los pájaros,” which translates to “for the birds” in English.
There are also related idioms that convey a similar meaning. One example is “all hat and no cattle,” which is used to describe someone who talks big but doesn’t follow through with their actions. Another similar phrase is “not worth the paper it’s printed on,” which suggests that something is so insignificant that even the paper it is written on is more valuable.
The versatility of idiomatic expressions like “for the birds” allows for creative usage and adds a touch of humor and color to our language.
So, the next time you hear someone say “that’s for the birds,” you’ll understand that they are dismissing something as unimportant or insignificant. It’s a reminder that not everything deserves our attention and that it’s okay to focus on what truly matters.
Usage Examples in Conversation and Pop Culture
Using for the birds in everyday speech
The phrase “for the birds” is a common idiom used in everyday speech to express disdain, disinterest, or insignificance. It is often used to describe something as unimportant or worthless. For example, if someone is talking about a boring movie they watched, they might say, “That movie was for the birds.”
In this context, the phrase implies that the movie was not worth watching and had no value.
Another example is when someone is complaining about a tedious task they have to do, they might say, “I have to clean my room again? Ugh, that’s just for the birds!” Here, the phrase is used to convey the speaker’s frustration and dissatisfaction with the task.
For the birds in movies, TV, and song lyrics
The phrase “for the birds” has also made its way into popular culture, appearing in movies, TV shows, and song lyrics. In the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly famously says, “I don’t want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together.
I’m not sure where that is, but I know what it is like. It’s like Tiffany’s… The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!”
To which George Peppard’s character, Paul Varjak, replies, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” And Holly responds, “No, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think they would’ve named a real place Tiffany’s without making sure it was for the birds.”
In this scene, the phrase “for the birds” is used to convey the idea that something is meaningless or unimportant.
Song lyrics have also incorporated the phrase. In the 1964 hit “And I Love Her” by The Beatles, the band sings, “And I love her, if she gives me everything, and she does, and I love her, that’s why I love her.” The lyrics go on to say, “And I love her, ’cause she’s not just for the birds.”
Here, the phrase is used to emphasize the singer’s genuine affection for the person mentioned.
Interpretations in artwork and graphic design
The phrase “for the birds” has been interpreted and depicted in various forms of artwork and graphic design. One interpretation could be a literal depiction of birds, representing freedom, beauty, or nature. This can be seen in paintings, illustrations, and even tattoos that incorporate bird imagery.
Another interpretation could be a more abstract representation of the phrase, using symbolism or metaphors. For example, an artist might create a piece where birds are seen carrying away objects or ideas that are considered meaningless or insignificant.
This conveys the idea that these things are “for the birds” and should be disregarded.
Artists and graphic designers often use their creativity to explore different interpretations of common phrases like “for the birds,” giving them new meanings and visual representations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is “for the birds” considered offensive?
The phrase “for the birds” is not generally considered offensive. It is a colloquial expression that means something is trivial, unimportant, or insignificant. It is often used to dismiss or belittle something.
For example, if someone is talking about a boring movie, they might say “That movie was for the birds.” However, it is important to note that the interpretation of language can vary among individuals, so it’s always a good idea to be mindful of context and the people you are communicating with.
What’s the difference between “for the birds” and “for the birdies”?
“For the birds” and “for the birdies” are similar phrases but have slightly different meanings. “For the birds” is the more commonly used expression and generally has a negative connotation, as mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, “for the birdies” is a more playful and light-hearted variation of the phrase. It is often used to refer to something enjoyable or delightful. For example, if someone is talking about a beautiful sunset, they might say “That view is for the birdies.”
This variation of the phrase adds a touch of whimsy and positivity.
Does the phrase have any positive meanings?
The phrase “for the birds” is primarily used in a negative or dismissive sense. However, it is worth noting that language is dynamic, and meanings can evolve over time. In some contexts, “for the birds” can be used in a more neutral or even positive manner.
For example, if someone is talking about birdwatching and says “I have a special spot in the park for the birds,” it can indicate that they have a designated area where they can observe and appreciate the birds.
However, it’s important to consider the overall context and tone of the conversation to understand the intended meaning.
In summary, dismissing something as “for the birds” conveys that it is unimportant, useless, or worthy of mockery. This common idiom has its roots in early 20th century American slang and became popularized through mass media and culture.
So next time you hear someone say a concept is “for the birds,” you’ll know they mean it’s not worth their time or attention.