On the rubber fowl beat

In my writing, it goes back a dozen years to a Language Log posting on rubber ducky, with further duck notes over the years; notable from the outset were items like the vinyl rubber ducky, a rubber ducky made of vinyl. And then today Bob Eckstein burst onto Facebook with a new Christmas item from the Archie McPhee company, a rubber chicken Christmas ornament — yes, a glass rubber chicken.


(#1) “Sure, Santa is a jolly old elf with an easy laugh, but if you want to send him into paroxysms of laughter so loud they’ll wake the kids, just pop this hand-blown glass Rubber Chicken Ornament on your tree. At 7″ tall, it will make a striking statement of hilarity amongst the somber symbols of the season that inhabit the rest of your tree. Not everyone understands the Rubber Chicken Ornament, which actually makes it even funnier to those of us that do! Includes string for hanging.” (Archie McPhee ad copy)

Not only are these apparently oxymoronic compounds attested, they are entirely comprehensible, and informative — so long as you’re familiar with the very culture-specific referents that go by the names rubber ducky and rubber chicken, which are not merely any old fowl-simulacra — a cute-duck-simulacrum and a chicken-simulacrum, respectively — made of rubber, but something much more specific.

A vinyl rubber ducky is then a vinyl simulacrum of such a rubber ducky (‘a rubber ducky made of vinyl’), and a glass rubber chicken is a (blown) glass simulacrum of such a rubber chicken (‘a rubber chicken made of glass’):

[ vinyl ] [ rubber ducky ] and [ glass ] [ rubber chicken ]

(where both of these are resembloid, rather than subsective, N + N compounds).

And these are no more contradictory than a compound like dog painting photograph ‘ a photograph of a dog painting’, understood as

[ dog painting ] [ photograph ]

Bits of background before I focus entirely on rubber chickens.

— in my 4/9/07 posting on Language Log, “Ducky identity”: on dog rubber ducky ‘rubber ducky resembling a dog’ etc.; also vinyl rubber ducky ‘rubber ducky made of vinyl’

The larger point is that a rubber ducky is not just an object resembling a ducky (a cute duck or duckling), but one in a certain size range, with particular kinds of highly stylized features. The rubber-ducky representational genre can then be used to mimic creatures other than ducks, like dogs or cats, and realized in materials other than rubber, like vinyl or another type of plastic.

— in my 12/26/16 posting “The Christmas pickle”, with a glass pickle, a Christmas ornament in the spirit of the rubber chicken in #1

— in my 11/12/17 posting “This week’s news for pickles”, an electronic yodeling pickle from Archie McPhee for Christmas last year; plus some details about the antic Archie McPhee company

Rubber chickens. From Wikipedia, in an article that speculates fruitlessly on the origins of the stage prop:


(#2)  Loftus International’s rubber chicken (from the Walmart site)

A rubber chicken is a prop used in comedy. The phrase is also used as a description for food served at speeches, conventions, and other large meetings, and as a metaphor for speechmaking.

The origin of the rubber chicken is obscure, but is possibly based on the use of pig bladders, which were inflated, attached to a stick and used as props or mock-weapons by jesters in the days before the development of plastic and latex. Chicken corpses were readily available; therefore jesters could employ them as variations of slapsticks. [AZ: Whatever the historical details, rubber chickens in stage comedy do fill some of the dramatic functions of slapsticks and pig bladders.]

One account attributes the first use of a prop chicken to John Holmberg, the Swedish black-faced clown of the early 1900s. Holmberg would perform with his pockets full of fake food to mock the gluttony reportedly prevalent among the upper classes at the time. A claim that the symbol originated during the French Revolution with soldiers hanging a chicken from their muskets for luck is printed on the tag of rubber chickens manufactured by Archie McPhee. [AZ: Well, the company will say pretty much anything for fun.]

The term “rubber chicken” is used disparagingly to describe the food served at political or corporate events, weddings, and other gatherings where there are a large number of guests who require serving in a short timeframe. Often, pre-cooked chicken is held at serving temperature for some time and then dressed with a sauce as it is served. Consequently, the meat may be tough or “rubbery.” Someone who “travels the rubber chicken circuit” is said to do so by attending or making speeches at many such gatherings, often as part of political campaigning.

The dining-event idiom rubber chicken is of course beside the point in a discussion of the stage-comedy prop.

On slapstick humor and slapsticks, from Wikipedia:

Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy. Slapstick may involve both intentional violence and violence by mishap, often resulting from inept use of props such as saws and ladders.

The term arises from a device developed for use in the broad, physical comedy style known as commedia dell’arte in 16th-century Italy. The “slap stick” [Italian batacchio or bataccio] consists of two thin slats of wood, which make a “slap” when striking another actor, with little force needed to make a loud — and comical — sound. The physical slap stick remains a key component of the plot in the traditional and popular Punch and Judy puppet show.

An inflatable bladder was similarly used for stage beatings. And, eventually, rubber chickens were. In more recent times, merely holding up a rubber chicken has become enough to get a laugh; the rubber chicken is absurd and in itself risible.

A rubber chicken is of course highly stylized in form (as well as highly specialized in function): it’s a not at all realistic simulacrum of a lean plucked chicken, stretched out, with its beak open. What we have in #1 is then a glass simulacrum of such an object, suitable for hanging on a Christmas tree.

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