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What Does the Idiom 'Eat Crow' Mean?

Rujuta Borkar
The term 'eat crow' means having to accept defeat after having been proved wrong. Here we will shed light on the origin of this term and the varied interpretations of the same.

Did You Know?

The original term was said to have been 'to eat boiled crow'; though there has been no reference of the word 'boiling' in the story from which this idiom came about.
Eat crow―while adhering to that term in the most literal sense is bound to get most visualizing the act in their mind, some, cringing their noses, and maybe the odd few producing weird-esque sounds of gagging, it is, in a twisted sort of way, one of the meanings of the idiom.
To eat crow means having to admit to being wrong and thereby having to face humiliation. A very colloquial phrase, used mainly in the USA, this idiom falls under a rather large blanket of terms that follow the same line of thought.
How does a term that seems so completely unrelated to its meaning come about? And more importantly, how does it stay on? In the following sections of this Penlighten post, we will not only go into more details about the meaning and give examples of the same, but also provide an insight into its origin.

Origin of the Idiom

Crows, and other scavenging creatures like rats and buzzards have been considered distasteful to eat since Middle ages―in fact, the crow has been listed as unfit for consumption in chapter 11 of Leviticus.
Crows are known to feast on dead animals and corpses and eat from other unhygienic places, and therefore, their consumption is considered unsanitary and distasteful.
Given this background, the entry of crows into the world of idioms has not been the most positive of sorts. The meaning that we associate with 'eating crow' today, in that reference, the term first seems to have appeared in an American story about a dull-witted New York farmer, published in 1850.
There are, however, discrepancies about which publication the story was first published in. 3 papers/tabloids are known to have published similar versions of the story―the Daily Evening Picayune, the Saturday Evening Post, and The Knickerbocker.
All three speak of a farmer, who having received complaints from his boarders about the poor quality of food, says he can eat anything, to which the boarders are said to have asked whether he can eat a crow, and he seems to have responded with―'I kin eat a crow, but I be damned if I hanker after it'.
The story was considered extremely funny and was the reason why it was told and printed over and over, thus probably leading to the origin of the idiom.

Similar Phrases

There are several similar idioms that revolve around the theme of being wrong and having to eat something, like, eating humble pie, eating mud, eating dirt, or eating hat. The term 'eating humble pie' is used rather commonly in Britain, and is a take on the word 'umbles' which is made of the intestines and other undesirable parts of the deer.
Similarly, a magpie (type of crow) is usually referred to as simply 'pie'. The terms to 'eat crow' and 'eat humble pie' are steeped in a lot of similarities.

The Varied Meanings

The simplest meaning that one can take from the phrase 'eat crow' is to having to admit that one has been wrong, especially after taking a strong stand on a particular issue, and therefore, there is, at the base, a lot of humiliation involved.
Crows are known to feed on carcasses and such and such, in short, they're prone to eating rubbish, and therefore, when you're 'eating crow', you're eating your own words, which have, by that sense, proven to be complete rubbish.
So also, crow meat in itself is unpalatable and unpleasant, and therefore, when you're 'eating crow', you're eating something distasteful (like your words), and just as that physical experience will be horrendous, the same parallel can be drawn with the humiliation and mental anguish of having to admit that you were wrong.


Example #1
► If I don't score above 80% in the English paper, I'll eat crow.

Example #2
► You were wrong about the game, Johnny! It's time to eat crow, and oh, don't forget to put ketchup on it.

Example #3
► After a huge public outcry, the court was forced to eat crow and reverse their decision.
Example #4
► I guarantee you that UFOs are real. If I'm wrong, I'll be eating crow.

Example #5
► My boyfriend ate crow last night when I caught him sneaking out to meet his friends after he said he was sick in bed.
Some idioms are really fun to use, and this one most definitely lists in that category. Now that you know what it means, you can get that confused look off your face and get ready to use it liberally... not literally.