Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dumb Cluck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 23, 2012

A dumb cluck is, well, a dull-witted, stupid person … a blockhead … a dolt.  Some will tell you it’s a corruption of the Yiddish word klutz which means blockhead, and others will tell you it’s a corruption of the German word dummkopf which also means blockhead.  Still others will tell you it has to do with how smart a chicken really is.

On March 12, 2012 the Miami Herald ran a story entitled “Local Sports Franchises Take The Prize.”  The journalist, Glenn Garvin, wrote in part:

Marlins President David Samson, thinking he was safely in the company of his fellow robber-baron plutocrats at the Beacon Council, delivered a smirking speech in which he bragged about how easily he snookered $315 million or so out of our dumb-cluck local politicians. And he doesn’t want to hear any complaints out of you, buddy. The purpose of local government is to extract your money to pump up his bottom line.

Back in February of 1991, Max Baer Jr won a $2-million award Wednesday against ABC.  He claimed that ABC had prevented him from getting the film rights to Madonna’s song “Like A Virgin” which he had hoped would form the basis of a movie he wanted to produce.  On February 21, 1991 the Herald Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina reported:

Baer — best known for his role in the 1960s TV series — has filed a multimillion dollar suit in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that ABC-TV tried to take advantage of Jethro’s “big, dumb cluck” image in a 1986 dispute over film rights to the hit song.

The Ann Landers column published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on April 9, 1962 ran a letter from a writer named, Dutch Uncle.   The problem was that the businessman had hired the daughter of a friend to work for him in a secretarial position.  At first, it appeared that the biggest problem was her inability to spell, but there was more to the story as Dutch Uncle added:

Linda is a nice person and tried hard, but in addition to her lack of skills she arrives late (from 20 to 30 minutes) about three days every week.  Her absentee record is the worst in the office.  She has not worked a single Monday in nine weeks. I pay this dumb cluck $310 a month.  What can I do in view of the close relationship?

The Hartford Courant published a report by Grantland Race on March 26, 1941 entitled, “Fighter Who Beats Louis Will Have To Be Smart.”  The subtitle read:

‘No Dumb Cluck Is Going To Have Much Of A Chance,’ Says Jack Kearns In Discussing Current Crop Of Heavyweight Challengers

On December 20, 1937 an animated short was released.  The name of the short?  Why it was “The Dumb Cluck” produced by Walter Lantz (27 April 1899 – 22 March 1994), the man who brought us Chilly Willy and Woody Woodpecker.  The character of the Dumb Cluck first appeared two months earlier on October 18, 1937 in the animated short “The Keeper of the Lions.”  The Dumb Cluck was the creation of writer Charles R. Bowers (June 7, 1877 – November 26, 1946).

And let’s not forget the Three Stooges who filmed “Three Dumb Clucks” that same year!  In this movie, the Stooges are in jail when they learn that their father, Popsie-Wopsie is about to marry a gold-digger named Daisy.  Of course, they have to get out of jail and save Popsie-Wopsie and get him back home to the loving arms of Momma.

Pulp fiction writer and Iowan, Dwight V. Babcock (1909 – 1979) published a story in 1934 entitled, “Dumb Cluck.”  Like his contemporary, Raymond Chandler, Dwight V. Babcock was known for writing longer stories and reworking each story until it was a good as it could possibly be.  That 1934 story is one of those stories.

Writer Joseph Patrick McEvoy (1895 – 1958) — he eventually became a roving editor for Reader’s Digest — wrote “Denny and the Dumb Cluck” which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1930.  It told the story of a salesman with the Gleason Card Company named Denny Kerrigan and Chicago shop girl, Doris Miller — the dumb cluck of the title.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the novel, it was reviewed in Book Review Digest on page 658 in 1930.

Author Edmund Wilson only wrote three novels in his lifetime, one of which was entitled, “I Thought of Daisy” which was published in 1929.  A colleague of both Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson‘s book was a realistic depiction of the 1920s.  The expression dumb cluck is found in this passage in the book:  

The door into the dining room opened, and Larry Mickler and Daisy appeared.

“Come on, yuh dope!” said Daisy to Pete Bird.  “What d’ye think yuh are, brooding around the kitchen?  — a cockroach?” 

“Get away, yuh dumb cluck!” replied Pete, relunctantly opening his eyes, “and leave me to my meditations!”

“Let’s leave him to his slumbers,” said Larry Mickler, who was evidently drunker than ever.  “The boyfriend’s passed out!  Too many of those rich liverwurst sandwiches!”

This American slang doesn’t seem to appear before 1929 however for the expression to be used so freely in Edmund Wilson‘s book, it had to be part of the vernacular and with that, Idiomation is willing to guess that it likely dates back to about 1920.

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