Questions on 1902 college slang article: "birdies", "barkers"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Jul 30 00:48:49 UTC 2006

On 7/29/06, Cohen, Gerald Leonard <gcohen at> wrote:
> The 1902 college slang item spotted by Benjamin Zimmer contains the
> following two sentences pertaining to Yale:
>  'The Skull and Bones men are called "rattlers," and the Skull and Key men
> "birdies," and the Wolf Head men "barkers." There are three senior societies,
> and juniors working to get into these are called "heelers." -- (parag. 15).
> ******
> I'm now wondering: Why are the Skull and Key men called "birdies"?

That's "Scroll and Key" (as it appears in the original article). More
on the senior society here:

No indication of why they'd be called "birders", but it may have had
something to do with their iconography.

>And why are the Wolf Head men called "barkers"?

As befits the group's name (which is actually "Wolf's Head", not "Wolf
Head" as the article has it), members incorporate wolf howls in their

> P.S. for "heelers" I assume we deal with HDAS "heeler" #1: "Orig. Underworld,
> a usually unskilled accompllice of a swindler, thief or other criminal; a hired
> thug; a servile supporter or backer; hanger-on."

It's akin to "servile supporter, hanger-on", but I think there's a
special collegiate sense here. Webster's Third New International has a
sense for "heel" (the verb): "to work for a school newspaper or
magazine esp. as a reporter." I believe it extends to other college

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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