Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Episode 222: Pecking Order


This week Shauna and Dan discuss the origins of the phrase Pecking Order. Bonus: Dan shares a secret, Shauna rolls a Nat 20 on charisma, and Dan gives you a new way to read Lord of the Flies.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 222: Pecking Order
Record Date: January 28, 2024
Air Date: January 31, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
If you’ve ever watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or The Breakfast Club… heck, nearly any movie set in a high school, you picked up real quick on the USA high school pecking order. And some of those movies lean into the pecking order, while some make their entertainment value by upsetting the pecking order. The Breakfast Club is a great example of the latter. Regardless of our experiences, many of us understand the concept of a pecking order, even if we don’t really know where the concept came from.


First off, let’s define pecking order in the idiomatic sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pecking order means:

Any hierarchy based on rank or status.
End Quote

And a hierarchy is simply a system that places people or things in a ranked order, one above another.

I should note that, despite my opening statement, I did not attend high school. There were some family dynamics in my life that prevented that from happening and I got my GED at 17. But that means I never experienced the pecking order of high school. I have kids that went to high school and while the pecking order seems to have changed a bit even over the 6-year stretch that they were there, they definitely recognized a pecking order.

Shauna, you attended and graduated from a high school… do you remember a pecking order?

I’ve definitely seen pecking orders in the work place. From things important like the order of presenters at a function to things small and petty like the order of the emails in the “to” field, pecking orders are alive and well in English-speaking society.

Okay, let’s jump back to this phrase's origins. Since the word ‘peck’ means for a bird to strike or bite something with its beak, you may wonder… does pecking order come to us from bird behavior? And the answer to that is… yes. Specifically chickens. Shauna, any thoughts on the timing of this phrase?

The phrase comes to us from a Norwegian scientist named Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe

Tor life Shell der oop uh buh

Let’s turn to Discover Magazine and an article written by Jack El-Hai in 2016 for a little more on Schjelderup-Ebbe:

At the turn of the twentieth century, a young Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe began vacationing with his wealthy parents, both sculptors, at a country retreat outside Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway, where he immersed himself in the lives of birds in the barnyard. He gave them names, closely watched how they behaved, and learned how to recognize one from the other. He “became terribly interested in chickens, terribly interested,” Schjelderup-Ebbe’s son Dag recounted in 1986 in an interview published in Human Ethology Bulletin.

Schjelderup-Ebbe tended the chickens at the summerhouse from the age of six. They obsessed him, and even during the winter he would travel to visit them and catch up on their lives. When he was 10, he started filling a notebook with diagrams capturing the social status of the feathered population of the farmyard. He discovered hierarchies, and he began tracking their patterns of behavior. Chickens, Schjelderup-Ebbe observed, rank themselves in predictable ways. The rankings emerge from squabbles over food, and when a chicken finds itself defeated in a dispute, it will forever submit to the winner. Each member of the flock understands who ranks above and below it, and Schjelderup-Ebbe called the highest-ranking chicken the “despot.” Dominant chickens remind their subordinates of their relative social status with a painful peck. He believed that this acceptance of hierarchy is inherited, not learned. From this avian system of hierarchy, we get the term “pecking order,” which Schjelderup-Ebbe coined.
End Quote

His work became influential in other research on social dominance in birds, then expanding into other animals. It became clear that social dominance factors heavily in many species of the animal kingdom.

But to see where the phrase actually gets used, we’ll turn to Gary Martin of

In 1921 Schjelderup-Ebbe submitted a PhD dissertation on the behaviour of chickens. He called the dominance hierarchy Hackliste. This was later translated into German as Hackordnung and later into English as pecking order.
End Quote

Porter G. Perrin of the University of Washington wrote in one of his works the earliest use of the term pecking order in English was in Friedrich Alverdes’ work the Social Life in the Animal, which appeared in 1925 and was translated in 1927. Perrin wrote this in 1955 and noted the phrase “pecking order” had not yet made it into general dictionaries.

This quote is from the translated version done by K.C. Creasy.

Schjelderup-Ebbe has shown how an order of precedence comes into existence within societies. A flock of fowls in a fowl run is not exclusive in the sense that its members make common cause against a new arrival, leaving the latter isolated. The new-comer may safely attach itself to the flock, but the position it is to hold therein must first be won by fighting. For no two hens ever live side by side in a flock without having previously settled, either for the time being, or for good, which is the superior and which the inferior; the “pecking order” thus established decides which of the birds may peck the other without fear of being pecked in return.
End Quote

If you want to hear more about the research of pecking order, tune into the behind the scenes video available on Friday at where, after the show, we look at 100 years of research in dominance hierarchies.

But for the phrase, it didn’t take long for the term to start showing up in newspapers. This next one comes to us from the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in October 1929, and once again we say thank you to Gary Martin for putting us on this citation.

A little background to give context to the quote, Dolly Gann is the socialite sister of then Vice President Charles Curtis of Kansas. Vice President Curtis was a widower, so he asked his sister to do many of the things the Vice President’s wife would have traditionally done in those days. Mrs. Gann insisted on being treated in the same way the Vice-President's wife would have been at as social functions, which upset the hierarchy and the State Department had to change the protocols to allow it. Here’s the quote:

Had Mrs. Gann been the wife of the Vice-President instead of the sister, her position of number two in the pecking order would never have been questioned.
End Quote

In less than 2 years after the term came to English we start seeing it in print. It was so fitting for English-speaking society that it immediately became part of the vernacular.

Here’s another early example out of the Brownsville Herald, Dec 31, 1933
Brownsville, TX
Human society was linked by Prof. Wheeler to the social organization that exists among chickens. Scientists call this the “pecking order”. Each fowl knows what other fowls he can safely peck and what other fowls he must allow to peck him. Whether he is near the top or the bottom of the pecking order depends on age, state of health, and other factors.
End Quote

Here’s an example from the Coventry Evening Telegraph out of Warwickshire England, July 24, 1953. The short article is called “Men-pecked”.

Chickens have a strict pecking order, by which the chiefs peck all the other chickens, but the deputy chief would never think of pecking his senior, according to Professor Gottfried Goetze, director of “the institute for the study of bee life” at Bonn University. “This pecking order by chickens is roughly the same as that of civil servants or scientists” he says.
End Quote
Before we head to our modern uses, we need to say a huge thank you to those who make Bunny Trails possible.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

1998 Song
The Peckin’ Order is a 1998 song by Ice Cube off the album War & Peace Vol. 1. The song has a spoken word intro that includes Ice Cube defining pecking order.

Whats up youngsta
since you the new booty
And don't know nothin'
I gotta show ya bout The peckin' order.
Its the order in how we do things and move things.
End Quote

2009 Book
Pecking Order is a 2009 novel by Omar Tyree. I’ll read a quick description of the author from Simon and Schuster:

One of the most popular and acclaimed African-American novelists of his generation, Omar Tyree has had five New York Times bestsellers, in addition to numerous other national lists over the years. Pecking Order, with its perfect blend of money, sex, and vulnerability, gives his fans another book to rave about.
End Quote

That sets the stage for the synopsis from the same group.

A sexed-up MBA case study: Pecking Order charts the dizzying rise of Ivan Davis, an accountant who decides to promote networking events among his rich, famous, and frivolous clients. After partnering with Lucina Gallo, the reigning diva of San Diego’s nightlife culture, Ivan hits the big time, and finds himself thrust into the limelight and lands at the doorstep of easy access to women, cash, private jets, and multimillion-dollar real estate. Tyree spins this breathless tale with his usual skill while presenting all the details of his protagonist’s rise to the top, from building website traffic to making property investments.
End Quote

2017 Movie
Pecking Order is a 2017 movie by Slavko Martinov. It is billed as a ‘flockumentary’. Here’s the synopsis from The Solid State who produced the film:

Join members of the 148-year old Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club in the lead up to the NZ National Championships, as they battle history (and each other) in their quest for glory. Meet Doug the determined Club President, Rhys the young upstart, Sarah the chicken whisperer, Ian the exacting judge, Mark the voice of reason and Brian the loveable champion. Pecking Order is a hilarious, unique, and heart-warming slice of Kiwiana which is sure to delight and surprise audiences of all ages.
End Quote

2017 Book
Pecking Order is a 2017 book of poetry by Nicole Homer. Here’s the synopsis of the work by the publisher:

Nicole Homer's first full-length poetry collection, Pecking Order, is an unflinching look at how race and gender politics play out in the domestic sphere.

Homer challenges the notion of family by forcing the reader to examine how race, race performance, and colorism impact motherhood immediately and from generation to generation. In a world where race and color often determine treatment, the home should be sanctuary, but often is not.

Homer's poems question the construction of racial identity and how familial love can both challenge and bolster that construction. Her poems range from the intimate details of motherhood to the universal experiences of parenting; the dynamics of multiracial families to parenting black children; and the ingrained social hierarchy which places the black mother at the bottom.

Homer forces us to reckon with the truth that no one - not even the mother - is unbiased.
End Quote

2022 Book
Pecking Order is a 2022 horror novel by C.I.I. Jones. Here is the synopsis from the publisher:

A group of strangers discover that they are the kidnapping victims of a deranged man on a secluded farm. They are held inside a chicken coup where they spend the next several days discovering why they are there and trying to figure out how they can escape. And their captor, The Farmer, has his own plans. His own demands. Together, the victims and perpetrator alike, will discover where they fall in the PECKING ORDER.
End Quote

Wrap Up
The phrase pecking order is an apt one to give an overly-simplistic view of power structures in many english-speaking societies, and likely many others as well. And while putting things into hierarchical orders is something many of us do naturally, it comes with all of our biases built right in. So determining a pecking order is something that is often frought with discrimination against others even when we don’t mean to do it. And all too often, those at the top of the pecking order are the ones willing to do things that are overly aggressive and generally frowned upon in society. I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from biologist Elizabeth Hobson:

Coming in and being hyperaggressive can allow you to rise to the top of the hierarchy. But if your only method of keeping rank is aggression, the moment you let down your guard, someone else can take over.
End Quote

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, what magical school would you go to?

Coming in with the overwhelming majority of the votes is the Unseen University from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Some of the other’s getting shout outs included Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series, Brakebill’s from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, and Camp Halfblood from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

In addition to the school, we asked what your go-to spell would be.

Jan said:

Unseen University for me and I'm always casting magic missile in DnD to solve my problems, so probably that spell.
End Quote

For me, I think Hogwarts is dangerous and Brakebills is too drama-filled. Camp Halfblood sounds cool, but it's not my kind of magic. My pick has to be joining the Unseen University because there is some serious magic in the place, even though we rarely see it used. My most commonly used spell would be something mundane like a cleaning spell. But my proudest would be Gift of Tongues, allowing me to speak and understand any language.

Mary noted:

I chose Hogwarts because I think I would have a future there as a professor. However, I know nothing about Unseen University and am thinking I really need to.
End Quote

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.



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