Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Like A Hen Needs A Flag

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 9, 2013

When people want something they don’t need, you sometimes hear them say they need it like a hen needs a flag. Hens aren’t particularly in need of flags and obviously the useless of the need is why the expression exists. However, tracing back the history on this idiom proved almost impossible.

In Harlan Ellison’s book, “Stalking The Nightmare” famous author Stephen King wrote in the book’s Foreword:

It drives my wife crazy, and I’m sorry it does, but I can’t really help it. All the little sayings and homilies. Such as: There’s a heartbeat in every potato; you need that like a hen needs a flag; I’d trust him about as far as I could sling a piano; use it up, wear it out, do it in, or do without; you’ll never be hung for your beauty; fools’ names, and their faces, are often seen in public places.

Stephen King first used it in his 1980 novella “The Mist” (and included in his anthology of short stories “Skeleton Crew” published in 1986) where he wrote:

I was the closest, and I grabbed Norm around the waist and yanked as hard as I could,  rocking back on my heels. For a moment we moved backward, but only for a moment. it was like stretching a rubber band or pulling taffy. The tentacle yielded but gave up its basic grip not at all. Then three more tentacles floated out of the mist towards us. One curled around Norm’s flapping red Federal apron and tore it away. It disappeared back into the mist with the red cloth curled in its grip and I thought of something my mother used to say when my brother and I would beg for something she didn’t want us to have-candy, a comic book, some toy.  “You need that like a hen needs a flag,” she’d say.

Now several sources claim that the expression is a southern expression, however, it doesn’t seem to appear very often other than in recent online forum discussions. Some members have posted that their grandparents used the expression back in the 40s and 50s although Idiomation couldn’t find any proof of the phrase’s existence during that period.

Without any documentation, the best we can guess at is that the expression originated with Stephen King in 1980. If readers are able to provide documentation that proves it was an expression prior to that, Idiomation welcomes that information.

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