< Have You 'Ruffled Any Feathers' Recently?
By Anna Matteo
25 February 2023

And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

Birds bring so many wonderful things to our lives. They have beautiful songs for our ears and beautiful feathers for our eyes.

Birds also add to our English expressions. You may have heard the early bird catches the worm. This saying means the person who arrives first is most likely to get what they want.

FILE - Marine biologist Bonnie Slaton checks a field camera on Raccoon Island, in the U.S. state of Louisiana, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
FILE - Marine biologist Bonnie Slaton checks a field camera on Raccoon Island, in the U.S. state of Louisiana, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

And what about birds of a feather flock together? That means people with the same interests are often together.

Well, today we talk about a bird expression that describes being upset, or bothering someone. When we upset others, we have ruffled their feathers.

For example, if I am often late meeting a friend, that could ruffle her feathers. It could bother her. And if someone lies to me, that will ruffle my feathers.

Besides meaning to bother or upset people, this expression has another meaning. It also means that your action shakes things up. We use it to describe an action that changes the status quo, or the usual way of doing things.

Sometimes, we upset more than just one person. In that case, we can say we ruffled a few feathers. For example, if a new work policy is not popular with workers, it will probably ruffle a few, or more than a few, feathers.

In English, we have quite a few expressions that mean something similar. To drive someone up the wall, to get under someone's skin, and to get on someone's nerves all mean to bother someone.

However, we do not use those expressions to describe changing the usual way of doing things. So, in that sense, ruffling some feathers is different.

Word experts say that the use of this expression began in the mid-1800s. It comes from the fact that, sometimes, birds ruffle their feathers when they are upset. But birds also ruffle their feathers at other times, for example to keep warm or during mating season.

Now, let's hear two friends use the expression.

A: The meeting for our Ukulele Club is going to start in 20 minutes.

B: I brought drinks and some food.

A: And I brought copies of our new rules!

B: Um ... I don't think you should hand those out.

A: Why?

B: Well, some members are NOT going to like them.

A: What do you mean?

B: I mean -- these new rules are going to ruffle some feathers.

A: No way! Whose feathers are going to be ruffled?

B: Well, Marjorie, for one. Your first new rule is no dogs are permitted during practice. She doesn't go anywhere without her little dog BinkyBoo.

A: Well, maybe we can change that one.

B: And the dress requirement? Do you really think people want to dress in costume for performances?

A: It'll make it more fun for the audience.

B: Actually, every one of the new rules is going to ruffle someone's feathers.

A: Okay, I get it. I'll throw them away. The last thing I want to be accused of is being a feather-ruffler.

And that's all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. Until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.

Words in This Story

flock - v. to gather or move in a large group : – n. a group of animals (such as birds or sheep) assembled or herded together

status quo – n. the existing state of affairs

costume – n. special or fancy dress (as for wear on the stage or at a masquerade party)

audience – n. a group that listens or watches (as at a play or concert)

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