yardbird; snuffy

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 20 14:44:19 UTC 2014

*"Mil.* A recruit, a newly-enlisted serviceman; also, a serviceman under
discipline for a misdemeanour; one assigned to menial tasks. Also
ex.: (late) 1941.

What the OED misses is that the word was introduced to the nation - though
perhaps not actually coined - by cartoonist Billy ("Heebie-Jeebies") De
Beck in his syndicated strip "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" for Nov. 16,

In the Nov. 2 strip, Snuffy Smith decided to join the army (San Antonio
Light, p. 12 [NewspArch].  After two weeks of various misadventures, he was

The earliest appearance of "yardbird" in the strip (or anywhere in this

1940 *San Antonio Light* (Nov. 16) 12: BARNEY GOOGLE AND SNUFFY SMITH …
Okay, Smith – you’re a first-class “YARD BIRD”  one rank below a buck
private - good luck.

In strips to come, DeBeck would apply the word to Smith many times.

The word had escaped from the strip by Nov. 28:

*1940* *Kerrville* [Tex.] *Mountain Sun* (Nov. 28) 11 [NewspArch:  Sergeant
Fuzzy Swayze in charge of the supply room, Jimmy [?K]orn, the “yard bird”
lately recruited from the ranks of the clothing store employees, busy
fitting heavy brogans on some of the boys.

And within a few more weeks  the word was reported to be in wide use:

*1941* *San Antonio Light* (Jan. 12) III 7: Snuffy Smith’s rank of “yard
bird” which is a degree lower than “private” has been adopted by the new
recruits of Uncle’s army. In our last war, they used “rookie,” remember?

After that, exx. become frequent in the press and eventually elsewhere.

The obscure semantics of "yard bird" led to an early suggestion that it
came from West Point, where an "area bird" (not "yardbird") meant a cadet
sentenced to walk punishment tours around the "area."  Its repetition
accounts for the OED's belief that a "yardbird" could mean specifically "a
serviceman under discipline for a misdemeanour."  (The "menial" sense is
supported from Calude Brown's 1965 _Manchild in the Promised Land_ and
seemingly has nothing to do with the military.)

I suggest that a better overall definition would be: "a basic trainee in
the army or marine corps; (hence), an inept or troublesome enlisted man."

OED also lists later, non-military senses.

Why De Beck chose the term "yard bird" seems to be a mystery: perhaps he'd
picked it up from someone else.  ("Bird" of course was a period synonym of
"guy"). OED doesn't include the BE sense,"chicken." Nor does DARE.

"Snuffy," moreover, became an occasional USMC synonym for "yardbird":
undoubtedly in allusion to Snuffy Smith.

Just when and why Charlie Parker (1920 - 1955) was first called "Yard Bird"
appears to be another mystery:  http://www.birdlives.co.uk/content/yardbird


"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list