Henny Penny, Chicken Little, Chicken Licken

While writing the other day, I wondered whether it would be widely understood if I used Chicken Little as a metaphor for a certain kind of language peever. It felt right, but I also knew the name Henny Penny (of the main character in the story--see comments for variations), both from my American childhood and from my child's English childhood. Then I got an email informing me that my Survey Monkey subscription had been auto-renewed for the next month. Which is to say, I had failed to notice the note in my (BrE) diary/(AmE) planner on Tuesday that said "UNSUBSCRIBE FROM SURVEY MONKEY". At that point, I decided to get my money's worth from this unintended subscription, and so I devised something called the Famous Chicken Survey. Because I'd read another name, Chicken Licken, on Wikipedia, I threw that into the survey.

(Now I know, with a bit more research that Hen-Len is another name, found for instance in a UK-published version from 1849.  For that and more, see this site, which catalog[ue]s Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 20C folktales.)

156 people from the US (n=80) and UK (n=76) had answered by tonight (and small numbers from other places, not to be analy{s/z}ed here), and 146 of those answered the key question:

So there we have it, Chicken Licken (orange) is BrE, Chicken Little (blue) is AmE.  While there's some Chicken Little in the UK answers, that's only 9 people on that blue bar. They might have been affected by the Disney films by that name (1943 and 2005).

I thought that perhaps Henny Penny was old-fashioned, but it's found across the age groups. That one may just depend on which book you had in your house (or your preschool). I don't have a historical corpus for BrE at home (and I doubt I have a big enough one for this job), but the Corpus of Historical American English has 2 Henny Pennys between 1880 and 1909, and 26 Chicken Littles, so that's clearly not a very new name.

It would not be surprising to find that Chicken Little is a corruption of Chicken Licken, since all of the story's other names rhyme: Cocky-Locky, Goosey-Loosey, etc.  It also would not surprise me if the Little corruption and the alternative Henny Penny arose from a Victorian desire to avoid the association with licking. At least, that's what I'd want to avoid, since Chicken Licken sounds like a (BrE) dodgy (orig. AmE) fast-food joint to me. But that might be because it is a fast-food (orig. AmE) chain in South Africa, where I used to live. Not to mention that the Victorians wouldn't have heard of it.



The Wikipedia page for the South African Chicken Licken funnily enough refers to the Henny Penny Corporation (USA), which supplies equipment to chicken-frying businesses. I can see why these companies wouldn't want little in their names, but they're clearly not worried about associating their businesses with muddle-headed paranoia.

41 comments

  1. The story doesn't seem to have arrived on my grandsons' bookshelves yet, and I honestly can't remember which we (BrE) had - I think "Henny Penny", but wouldn't swear to it. In fact, I may have had "Henny Penny", who ate crisp, crunchy bugs (which I, along with many other children, called "crisp, crunchy buggers", no swearing implied, just that it was easier for a child to say), and my sister, twelve years younger, may have had "Chicken Licken", who ate crisp, crunchy insects, so disappointing....

    ReplyDelete
  2. Weird thing is, I know all of those names, and after reading them all here, I'm not at all sure which one I grew up with. (AmE)

    Wasn't Chicken Little a movie? Yeah, 2005, from the D-word. Not that I saw it, but I surely saw the ads, and it feels like that is skewing my memory.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not sure I remember any of those names from my childhood. I do recall reading the science fiction novel The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth in my teens - around 1970 - in which there was a giant lump of vat-grown protein called Chicken Little and that may have been the first time I'd come across the name.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My earliest memory of the story had "Chicken Licken," because I remember being surprised (at age three or so) then next time I heard the story, when the name was changed to "Chicken Little."

    ReplyDelete
  5. My relevant childhood years were the late 1940's in Britain. I'm sure I never heard any of the the three. Some time later in life I came across Henny Penny and Chicken Licken, but assumed they had been made up for some American children's classic that never made it to Britain. Chicken Little rings no bells whatsoever.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Growing up in the 1960s on the East Coast of the US, I remember Chicken Little. He was the central figure in a fable or fairy tale, and his main line was "The sky is falling!" I can't call up the details, but basically, no one believed him but he turned out to be--in some unexpected, roundabout way--right.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This type of tale is as old as the hills, though tracking the animals and names in it is difficult, since at some point the written record fails. I've now added a link with another 19th century UK name, Hen-Len, within the post.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Not particularly helpful, but ISTR that Henny-Penny was the first creature who Chicken Licken encountered and told the the sky was falling. Same story, different characters.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Now that you mention it, I've seen that too.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You sent me to Wikipedia, where I learnt to my surprise that the three characters are one and that the story is traditional.

    So maybe it was read to us when I was in infant school (first three years in Britain c 5-7 years old). If so, It made no impression on me whatsoever.

    I was much older — an adult, I think — when I heard the kernel of the story: Chicken Licken shouting to the world that the sky is falling.

    I think the reason why part of the tale was vivid to the older me and (apparently) of no interest to the younger me is that structurally it's such a rubbish story. It starts with the best bit and develops it reasonably well, but then has nowhere to go.

    So, I'm wiser now. But I still can't see in what way Chicken Little could be a metaphor for any kind of language peever.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The English language is falling!
    The English language is falling!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Stephen Pinker in his new style guide quotes William Caxton, the founder of English printed writing:

    And certainly our language now vsed veryeth ferre from what which was vsed and spoken when I was borne.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My experience (b. 1948) is the same as David Crosbie's. I've vaguely heard all the names, but don't recall coming across them in my childhood at all. I would assume from more recent knowledge that Henny Penny is the Victorian version and therefore more likely to be more common here, but that's just guesswork.

    And any association with language pedantry just passes me by completely. I'm much more familiar with "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", if that's the point of the association.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Another Brit, born 1948, here. My memories of Chicken Licken, Hen Len, Turkey Lurkey, and Co. are so vivid that I can still see the printed story (and its typeface!) in my mind's eye.

    It was in the Beacon Readers series, which had on their covers, well, beacons -- of the kind that used to appear on "school ahead" road signs and looked, to a child, like ice-cream cornets. Each book in the series had a different colour and in each one the stories got longer and the print smaller ...very satisfyingly as it meant we were making progress.

    (I've just googled for it, and I see that it was Book Three, with a green cover, and published in 1955, so I would have been seven. Ah, jeugdsentiment, as the Dutch say...)

    P.S. Autolycus, the humorous association I believe Lynne was making was not so much to do with pedantry as such as with oh-dear-oh-dear-type mass panic (which is what the Chicken Licken tale is all about).

    ReplyDelete
  15. My memory (that always reliable guide) would go with Chicken Licken telling Henny Penny too. That’s BrE with a mid-60’s birth so I guess late-60’s first coming across the story. I have a sister a couple of years younger so I’d have heard it into the early 70’s probably.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Kevin Flynn

    It was in the Beacon Readers series

    Really? That means I must have read it. But still it can't have made any impression on me.

    For me the Beacon Readers were the first great challenge in life. My daily goal was to get on with finishing the current book and so on to the next. And never far away was the goal of finishing the books in one colour and starting on the next — the next series up, and the next step up in being a 'good reader'.

    Like several other posters, I remember Chicken Licken speaking to Henny Penny. But that's not a childhood memory.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I agree, from a British point of view, that Henny Penny and Chicken Licken were two different characters in the same tale.

    But I do seem to recall, from the late 1960s, that Chicken Licken figured in a recurring gag in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Now, it may be that I am misremembering and it was Chicken Little all along but I think that would have struck me as odd.

    ReplyDelete
  18. BrEng speaker in my sixties. No specific recollection of the story from childhood or as a parent, but both Chicken Licken and Henny Penny sound familiar. Chicken Little doesn't.

    What may be a related linguistic change is that when I was a child, an adult hen was a hen and a chick or a chicken only meant a baby one or a cooked one. Chicken though is often now used to describe a full grown alive hen.

    In those days, chicken was rather a rare and special dish, reserved for special occasions, not the cheapest meat that it is now.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Having followed Kevin's examples and googled Beacon Readers, I find that I must have confused them with a scheme that ran parallel in our infant school.

    What I remember with some affection is a series of little books with colour-coded jackets, each colour representing a stage of progressi in reading. The beacon readers were also colour coded and graded, so I presumably equated the two progressions.

    [Another possibility is that the Beacon Readers actually preceded the other scheme, and that my memory has conflated them.]

    The little books were stories — some of them highly abridged versions of classic novels with child-appeal. So I find myself to some extent in the real books camp. The Beacon Readers were a chore to be endured for the sake of progress; the little story-book readers were engaging and challenging and satisfying.

    OK they weren't the desirable objects that the real books people demand, but they were stories. When you finished one, yes there was another to challenge you, but there was also the satisfaction of reaching the end of the story.

    No wonder I thought so little of Chicken Licken — a little story without a proper ending, and stuck in the middle of a collection with no apparent shape.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Dru

    In those days, chicken was rather a rare and special dish, reserved for special occasions, not the cheapest meat that it is now.

    That may have been true of chicken bought at the butcher's, but in Nottingham we had a Sainsbury's — long before they became a supermarket chain, indeed long before anybody in Britain became a supermarket.

    At Sainsbury's my mother would buy whole chickens, pieces of chicken, chicken giblets, all at really reasonable prices. If she ever wanted something more economical, she'd buy a boiling fowl. So the hen vs chicken age-distinction in the farmyard was carried over to the boiling fowl vs chicken size-distinction in the shop.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm from the US and was born in '58.

    I have never heard of Chicken Licken, but I do remember the other two. Sometimes I get Henny-Penny mixed up with the Little Red Hen, who can't get anybody to help her bake bread.

    ReplyDelete
  23. @David Crosbie: You sent me to Wikipedia, where I learnt to my surprise that the three characters are one and that the story is traditional

    Wikipedia (at least the version I read just now) says that "Chicken Licken", "Henny Penny", etc. are alternative names for the same *story*, not for the same *character*.

    ReplyDelete
  24. When I first looked at Lynne's survey and spotted Chicken Licken I said to myself but that was a fast-food chain!

    And no, I don't mean a South African fast-food chain, I mean an American one. I assume it's defunct -- or maybe it gave up in the U.S. because it had been out-marketed (and out-franchised) by KFC, which, when I was a kid in the '60s, was known by its original and far more mundane and descriptive name, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

    Anyway, reading over the comments I get the impression that the Chicken Little/Chicken Licken/Henny Penny saga resonates metaphorically with Americans rather more than with the British ... by which I mean we're possibly more likely to criticize certain voices of doom as Chicken Little types prone to absurd "sky is falling" declarations. (God knows the right-wing Fox News cable channel run by Rupert Murdoch in the U.S. is the living, breathing embodiment of the "sky is falling" mentality.)

    ReplyDelete
  25. vp

    Wikipedia (at least the version I read just now) says that "Chicken Licken", "Henny Penny", etc. are alternative names for the same *story*, not for the same *character*.

    The story is about one character who starts it all by shouting The sky is falling. If the story is called 'Henny Penny the that character is Henny Penny. And so on.

    The real question is whether Wikipedia is justified in saying that 'Henny Penny' really is an alternative name for the story.

    ReplyDelete
  26. It is justified. The book I link to in the post (re my child's childhood) calls the story 'Henny Penny'. And one need only google "Henny Penny book" to see many more examples.

    ReplyDelete
  27. In that case, Lynne, the article should be amended to describe the two different roles of Henny Penny in different versions of the story.

    I'd do it myself, but I don't have documentary evidence of the version where Henny Penny is the second character.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I have to confess that as a 30-year-old Brit, I honestly have no idea what you're talking about- I simply don't know the story at all. I do know of "Chicken Little", the Disney movie a few years back, but have never seen it and couldn't guess what it was about- I think I'd assumed it was a spinoff from the earlier film Stuart Little.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I did a quick experiment, looking at the earliest versions of the story I could find in Google Books:

    1: Chambers, "Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland", Edinburgh, 1842. Title: "The Hen and her Fellow-Travellers". Characters: Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Goosie Poosie,

    2: Halliwell-Philips, "Popular rhymes and nursery tales: a sequel to the Nursery rhymes of England", London, 1849. Title: "The Story of Chicken-Licken". Characters: Chicken-licken, Hen-len, Cock-lock, Duck-luck, Drake-lake, Goose-loose, Gander-lander, Turkey-lurkey, Fox-lox.

    3: Fowle, "The Mind and Heart, Or, School and Fireside Reading for Children", Boston, 1856. Title: "The False Alarm". Characters: Chicken Little, Hen-Pen, Duck-Luck, Goose-Loose, Fox-Lox.

    This may make it appear as if the name "Chicken Little" is a later development, however, that impression would be wrong. A book entitled "The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little" was included in a list of "new publications" in an American periodical from 1843, but neither Google nor anyone else appears to have an online copy. In fact, Fowle's 1856 publication claims to be a reprint of the text of an earlier story "first printed, with engraved illustrations, as a Picture Book for children". It seems plausible that the "Picture Book for children", and the c. 1843 "Remarkable Story" were one and the same.

    What is remarkable was the way in which "Chicken Little" permeated popular consciousness in the US. There is a reference to "Chicken Little" in an 1844 "oration" to the City of Boston. An 1842 essay on the government of "Hayti" refers to an "infantile philosophyer, yclept 'Chicken Little'"(!). This contrasts with Britain, where "Chicken Licken" and "Henny Penny" have remained very much confined to the world of children's stories.

    ReplyDelete
  30. The sky must be falling: "Chicken Little" has already been antedated!.

    This website shows the first two pages of an 1840 children's illustrated book titled "Remarkable Story of Chicken Little" (publisher J. G. Chandler, Roxbury, MA).

    ReplyDelete
  31. I'm from New Zealand and would have been reading this book about 1980. I'd have sworn, hand on heart, that the main character was Chicken Little. However I've just googled the book covers and the one I recall is very definitely Paul Galdone's Henny Penny. So my Chicken Little memory must be distorted by the more recent film...

    ReplyDelete
  32. Many thanks for all the additional research, vp!

    ReplyDelete
  33. My first memory of Chicken Little is actually from the Aerosmith song "Livin' on the Edge", which has a lyric "If Chicken Little tells you that the sky is fallin', even if it wasn't would you still come crawlin' back again...", which came out when I was in middle school in the '90s (in New England). I remember being a bit puzzled by that line because I didn't understand the Chicken Little reference, but then in the years after that I started to notice references to Chicken Little and his "the sky is falling" panic in other places. But I don't think I ever heard or read the story as a child. "Henny Penny" sounds vaguely familiar to me, so I might have heard that at some point as well. "Chicken Licken" just makes me think of "Finger Lickin' Good" (re: KFC).

    ReplyDelete
  34. I, too, remember the Beacon Readers, though in less detail than Kevin Flynn (I'm 3 years younger). I remember the character as Chicken Licken, but Henny Penny also struck a chord.
    In "The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle", Lucie asks a hen "Sally Henny-penny, have you found three pocket-handkins?"

    ReplyDelete
  35. Just as an aside, where I live "Chicken Little" is used to remind a catastrophizing person to chill out. "Hey, Chicken Little, will you relax?! So you lost your pen--the sky's not falling!"

    ReplyDelete
  36. The website of Ladybird Books, the juggernaut of 20th-century UK children's books, shows two versions (Read it yourself and Well-loved tales) of Chicken Licken, both with Henny Penny as the first companion. My first encounter with the story was probably an earlier edition of one or other of those.

    From other comments I infer that Chicken Little is a stock US metaphor for worrying over nothing. I didn't absorb any such moral from my childish encounters with the story: it was just a cumulative tale with a shock ending, akin to "Froggy went a-courting" or "Oranges and Lemons".

    ReplyDelete
  37. mollymooly

    the juggernaut of 20th-century UK children's books

    Well, the final third of the century. They were pretty few and pretty far between when I was of their target age.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I read (or was read) the story from a children's picture book when I was little (late 80's, US). I don't remember much except for Chicken Little, all the other rhyming animals, and "The sky is falling!".

    ReplyDelete
  39. Vivid memories of my Ladybird copy of Chicken Licken!

    ReplyDelete
  40. Chicken licken here in Australia. Henny Penny was the first person chicken licken told about the falling sky

    ReplyDelete
  41. For your enjoyment...the classic Golden Girls episode...

    http://youtu.be/PEHNtqFt9Ck

    ReplyDelete

Follow by email

View by topic

Twitter

Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)