Pigeons are known to have been domesticated for more than 5,000 years. They are mentioned in cuneiform writing on clay tablets dug up in Mesopotamia and in hieroglyphics on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs. There is a growing belief among archaeologists that pigeons were, in fact, the first birds to be domesticated, more than 10,000 years ago,
As a result of this long association, pigeons have entered our language and English is full of references to their domestication, their behaviour and their appearance.
They breed year round, and were kept for their eggs and their fast-growing, fat and tasty offspring, called squabs. The adult pigeons were offered food and a dovecot to nest in and, despite the regular harvesting of their eggs and squabs, they always returned for more.
So all over the English-speaking world, pigeon is a term used for the easily duped, for a conman’s mark or a pickpocket’s target. There is a centuries old belief that pigeons are not the brightest or bravest of birds and so we have all sorts of pigeon-based insults for those whose intellect and courage we doubt; pigeon brained, pigeon hearted, pigeon-livered.
A cat among the pigeons is anything that creates an outcry in a previously calm and ordered place like a domestic dovecot. Pigeon holes were the nest boxes, neatly laid out so that the eggs and squabs could be collected easily; anything that is pigeon-holed has been brought under control.
Because of a very old belief that pigeons, which usually do lay just two eggs, always hatch a male and a female, we talk about a pigeon pair when a family has a son and a daughter. The expression pigeon-toed is used for somebody who walks with their toes pointed inwards because pigeons walk that way; pigeon-chested is used to describe somebody whose chest is narrow and sticks out more than usual at the front, like a pigeon’s.
Pigeons have even entered the arcane language of IT, not as a controlled and domesticated creature, though, but as a feral nuisance: a pigeon architect is a software engineer who swoops into a project, creates a terrible mess and then swoops out, leaving it for somebody else to clean up.
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