Chicken Feed / Peanuts


I'm Susan Clark with Words and Their Stories, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.

Almost every language in the world has a saying that a person can never be too rich. Americans like people in other countries always want more money. One way they express this is by protesting that their jobs do not pay enough. A common expression is "I am working for chicken feed." It means working for very little money.

The expression probably began because seeds fed to chickens made people think of small change. Small change means metal coins of not much value, like nickels which are worth five cents.

An early use of the word - chicken feed appeared in American publication in nineteen thirty. It told about a rich man and his son. Word expert says "I'll bet neither the kid nor his father ever saw a nickel or a dime, they would not have been interested in such a chicken feed."

Chicken feed also has another interesting meaning known to history experts and World War Two spies and soldiers. Spy expert Henry S.A. Becket writes that some German's spies working in London during the War, also worked for the British. The British government had to make the German believes the spies were working. So British officials gave them mostly false information, it was called chicken feed.

The saying person who protesting his work for chicken feed, may also say "I am working for peanuts." She means she is working for a small amount of money. It is very different meaning from main one in a dictionary that meaning is small nuts that grow on a plant. No one knows for sure how a word for something to eat also came to mean something very small. But a peanut is a very small food.

The expression is an old one. Word expert says that is as early as eighteen fifty four. An American publication used the words "peanut agitators", that meant political trouble-makers who did not have a lot of support. Another reason for the saying about "working for peanuts" may be linked to elephants. Think of how elephants are paid for their work in the circus. They receive food, not money. One of the foods they like best is peanuts.

When you add the word gallery to the word peanut, you have the name of an area in an American theater. A gallery is a high sitting area or balcony above the main floor. The peanut gallery got its name because it is the part of the theatre most distant from where the show takes place. So peanut- gallery tickets usually cost less than other tickets. People pay a small amount of money for them.

This Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Jerilyn Watson. This is Susan Clark.