The homely pigeon

Well, that’s the sense Ruthie (in One Big Happy) makes of an expression unfamiliar to her, and she’s indignant on behalf of the pigeon:

It starts with a long-standing verbing of the noun home. From NOAD2:

verb home: [no object] (of an animal) return by instinct to its territory after leaving it: a dozen geese homing to their summer nesting grounds; (of a pigeon bred for long-distance racing) fly back to or arrive at its loft after being released at a distant point.

Already for the verb, the dictionary needs a subentry specifically for pigeons. By inclination or by training, some other creatures — dogs, in particular — home like pigeons, so this part of the definition should be a bit more general, but this kind of homing behavior is still distinct from homing in migratory creatures.

Then:

adj. homing: relating to an animal’s ability to return to a place or territory after traveling a distance away from it: a strong homing instinct; (of a pigeon) trained to fly home from a great distance and bred for long-distance racing;  (of a weapon or piece of equipment) fitted with an electronic device that enables it to find and hit a target [a sense related to the verb home in home in on].

I’d dispute the part-of-speech classification: noun rather than adjective in the uses here (homing instinct ‘instinct for homing’).

And finally the compound noun that Ruthie was trying to cope with:

noun homing pigeon: a pigeon trained to fly home from a great distance and bred for long-distance racing: the British military used homing pigeons extensively.

Pigeons are trained to home for two purposes: to carry messages and to compete in races. The first use is venerable, on the order of 3,000 years old according to the Wikipedia entry.

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