Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Opening up the Fact Cabinet with a Rooster Bar

Opening up the Fact Cabinet with a Rooster Bar 

Hi it’s Mike. The host of Get the Word! This week we’re looking at the word ‘crow’. We’ll start with the word crow and its different meanings, and then talk about a few terms, phrases and other words in which we see crow appear. Words like crowbar. Terms like Jim Crow. We’ll discuss how the word ‘crow’ became associated with the Apsáaloke tribe and talk about the Crow language and the people who are keeping it alive.

Let’s start with the word ‘crow’ by itself. In English, we can trace it back to our German roots. There are words in Old Saxon, Dutch, Old English, Old High German that all have similar sounding words. It’s believed to be imitative of the sound a crow makes. What we call an onomatopoeia. What’s interesting is that the word ‘caw’ (C-A-W) is also in the Oxford dictionary, with an origin as an imitative sound of a crow dating back to the late 16th century.

Let’s listen to a sound of a crow. — sound — . What do you hear? I definitely hear caw. What about this one? — 2 sound — We also have the word croak in the dictionary that is also associated with the sound a crow makes, or a frog, despite the fact that these two creatures sound pretty distinct from each other.

Imitative sounds are shaped by different cultures and the languages of those cultures. I’m reminded of my time in South America, where I first learned the imitative sound for a rooster, kikiriki. I also remember how ridiculous it sounded to some of my new friends in South America when I told them that I grew up with cock-a-doo·dle-doo.

Speaking of roosters, let’s talk about the verb ‘crow’ for a second. Often the verb crow is associated with roosters — rooster sound — the definition of crow to mean ‘make a loud noise like a cock’ dates back to at least the mid 13th century, with Merriam Webster saying all the way to before the 12th century, and has become the main use of the term ‘crow’ as a verb, with the word, in reference to crows. having faded over the years. This connection with roosters is also the most likely reason why we have the verb ‘crow’ to also mean a person who is ‘exulting in triumph’ or is expressing great pride, a use which one source says reaches back to the 1520s (etymonline).

So we have a noun that refers to one specific bird within the corvid family, (the related adjective being ‘corvine’ by the way, as in, “you’re looking corvine today”) and we have a verb
more often associated with roosters. (and) That’s why some people, particularly Curly from The Three Stooges, likes to point out a rooster bar is just as good as a crowbar because “don’t a rooster crow”? (clip)

Speaking of crowbar, trying to trace back the roots of this word brought me to a few different time periods. Shakespeare uses the term ‘iron crow’ in Romeo and Juliet:

    Friar John, go hence;
    Get me an iron crow, and bring it straight
    Unto my cell.


    Brother, I'll go and bring it thee.


… the term ‘iron crow’ also pops up in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe:

“Went to the wreck, and carried an iron crow to wrench up the deck, which lay now quite clear of the water or sand. I wrenched open two planks, and brought them on shore also with the tide. I left the iron crow in the wreck for next day.”

The actual word ‘crowbar’ most likely appears sometime in the 18th century. The connection to the crow being that the end of a crowbar looks a bit like a crow’s foot, or beak. It also could have come from Old French, related to a word meaning ‘hook’. According to a Snopes article the use of ‘crow’ related to this specific iron bar is documented in English as far back as the year 1400.

This article I found on Snopes, which is a fact-checking resource that’s been online since 1994, is debunking a claim that states “Crowbars are so named because they were devices used to perform menial labor assigned to blacks”. Unfortunately, ‘crow’ has been used as a pejorative term for Black people since the 1730s, but ‘iron crow’ as we see dates back farther than that, with no clear evidence of any link to black labor or any connections with racist labels.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jim Crow, the practice of segregating black people in the US, which the same Snopes article points out is most certainly connected to the history of referring to Black people in the time of slavery as crows. The most likely origin of the term Jim Crow is a 19th century minstrel song, created by a blackface minstrel performer named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in roughly about 1828, in which Jim Crow is a character. The song and its subsequent versions and variations became so familiar to folks that just a few years later in 1839 an antislavery book was published entitled The History of Jim Crow.

Soon after we start seeing Jim Crow being adopted by other writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author, who uses the term in her influential text Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Over the years, the term Jim Crow, or Jim Crow Laws, or Jim Crowism, came to be associated with the segregation of black individuals in the American South during the years of reconstruction post American Civil War into the 1950s and 1960s when we would see an end to some of the most blatant segregation practices; but of course segregation in the United States remains a problem to this day.

After the break we’ll discuss how the Apsáalooke (ahps-SAH-lo-kah) tribe of North America became better known as the Crow Tribe, and we’ll open up the Fact Cabinet to see what we can find this week. Stay with us.


Before the break I used the word Apsáalooke (ahps-SAH-lo-kah), which many of you may not recognize, partly because of my pronunciation but also because this North American tribe has over time become better known as the Crow. The Crow are an indigenous group. As of 2021, the tribe has a membership of approximately 11,000 of whom roughly 7,900 reside on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, here in the United States. The Crow are just one of many tribes that are not known today by their own ancestral tribe names.

The first contact that the Crow tribe had with Europeans is believed be in the year 1742. At the time the French wanted to expand control over the western part of Canada. The Crow, who once traveled throughout the Great Plains of North America, would have made contact with the French on trading expeditions as the French started to venture farther west. These early French traders termed them Beaux Hommes, or in English, Handsome Men. The tribe would eventually be more closely associated with the French and then English translation of Apsáalooke (ahps-SAH-lo-kah), which is roughly translated as ‘children of the large-beaked bird’; The French and English translations often translating this to ‘children of the crow’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, it is doubtful that the tribe would have been referencing the crow specifically.

Many indigenous languages are endangered today. By a rough estimate, there are about 4,200 speakers of the Crow language today. In recent years there have been efforts to try to keep the language alive, including efforts from the Crow Language Consortium, whose website is Check out the show notes of today’s episode for a link to the Crow Language Consortium’s website which includes an English to Crow dictionary with audio recordings (which is where I learned how to properly pronounce Apsáalooke (ahps-SAH-lo-kah). If you’d like to try to keep the language alive, then you can also download the group’s app, Crow Vocab Builder, which will help you build up a Crow vocabulary starting with simple nouns like animal names and eventually working up to verb use. I’ve been having fun with it. Did you know that the Crow word for ‘fish’ is búa (BOO-uh)?

Fact Cabinet: That sound effect means it’s time to open up the Fact Cabinet. A mysterious repository of seemingly endless amounts of artifacts and other objects that all seem to somehow be related to Get the Word! episode topics. Woah! My pet rooster, Tyrannosaurus Pecks. How’d he get in here?! Just one sec.

Did you know a rooster’s crow can be as loud as a jet taking off 15 meters away? The rooster doesn’t go deaf from its own piercing crow because it has evolved to have layer of soft tissue over its inner ear that protects them from their own loud mouths. Belgian researchers found that for a few loud moments during a rooster’s crow it reaches an average of 130 dbs. Just as many decibels as a jet taking off from about 50 feet away. Yikes! Maybe I need to change my rooster’s name to Tyrannosaurus Wrecks… My Ears!

Here’s my collection of hooks and barbed spears given to me by my corvid friends, the New Caledonian crows of… New Caledonia, a small island east of Australia. Careful, they’re very delicate. Believe it or not, these delicate hooks and barbed spears were created by the crows themselves. That’s right. Not only do crows know how to use tools, they’ve also been observed modifying leaves and twigs into their own tools that they use to hunt down insects and larvae. This level of complex tool making has only been observed in primates and crows.

I could go on and on all day about crows. They are such fascinating creatures. Many of you know that crows are associated with Halloween and all things spooky. There are often macabre associations with the crow. I’m sure many of you have heard of a murder of crows. No, not the 1998 action thriller starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Berenger about an aging novelist in Key West, Florida and a disgraced lawyer who steals credit for a manuscript that he didn’t write, which ends up being published and featured on the best seller list, sparking a series of events that lead to the lawyer, played by CG Jr., being the prime suspect in the investigation of a multiple homicide. No, not that. A murder of crows is the collective noun for a group of crows. Okay, so you probably knew that. But did you know that crows also hold their own funerals for their dead?! It’s been well documented, but poorly understood, why crows seem to gather around their lost comrades’ remains resembling something much like a funeral. Some researchers believe that the crows are learning from their dead friends and family members. Crows are keen observers and can perhaps glean some information about their surroundings, including potential dangerous situations, by observing the bodies of the dead.

I’m just scratching the surface on corvid facts. Have you ever heard of ‘anting’ before? Crows like to take ‘ant baths’ where they intentionally land on an anthill and allow themselves to be engulfed in ants. There are many theories for why they’re doing this, including to keep other pests off their feathers, to reduce bacteria on their body; there are even some theories that the crows are getting high as a kite from it.

What are some of your favorite corvid facts? Let us know and I’ll give you a shout out on the podcast!


Write in to the podcast: . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is We’d love to hear from you.

Show notes:

Fact Cabinet:

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:

Opening up the Fact Cabinet with a Rooster Bar