- the female of the domestic fowl.
- the female of any bird, especially of a gallinaceous bird.
- Informal. an unpleasant, usually older woman, especially one considered to be a busybody or gossip.
- the female of any bird, esp the adult female of the domestic fowl
- the female of certain other animals, such as the lobster
- informal a woman regarded as gossipy or foolish
- Scot dialect a term of address (often affectionate), used to women and girls
- scarce as hen’s teeth extremely rare
Old English henn, from West Germanic *khannjo (cf. Old Frisian henn, Middle Dutch henne, Old High German henna), fem. of *han(e)ni “male fowl, cock” (cf. Old English hana “cock”), literally “bird who sings (for sunrise),” from PIE root *kan- “to sing” (see chant).
The original masculine word survives in German (Hahn “cock”), Swedish, Danish, etc.; extension to “female of any bird species” is early 14c. in English. Hen as slang for “woman” dates from 1620s; hence hen party “gathering of women,” first recorded 1887. To be mad as a wet hen is from 1823, but the figure was used to indicate other states:
Some, on the contrary, are viciously opposite to these, who act so tamely and so coldly, that when they ought to be angry, to thunder and lighten, as one may say, they are no fuller of Heat, than a wet Hen, as the Saying is; …. [“Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton,” London, 1710]
Orth. Out upon you for a dastardly Fellow; you han’t the Courage of a wet Hen. [“A Sermon Preached at St. Mary-le-Bow, March 27, 1704”]
As wanton as a wet hen is in “Scots Proverbs” (1813). Among Middle English proverbial expressions was nice as a nonne hen “over-refined, fastidiously wanton” (c.1500); to singen so hen in snowe “sing miserably,” literally “sing like a hen in snow” (c.1200). Hen’s teeth as a figure of scarceness is attested by 1838.
see mad as a hornet (wet hen); scarce as hen’s teeth.