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If you like keeping your temper, then there’s little chance you’d like to be madder than a wet hen. This American expression, which possibly originated in the Appalachian Mountains, refers to the tempestuous temper of chickens that might accidentally find themselves in water. According to some accounts, chickens get extremely angry if they have to try to swim or fly out of water, since they do neither of these things well. Don’t expect your pet chicken to be anything but furious if you propose a trip to the lake or a visit to a nearby swimming pool.
There are several variants on the phrase. It may be written or spoken as "madder ‘n a wet hen," or "madder than an ole wet hen." The latter phrase wouldn’t make a great deal of sense, since hopefully an “ole” hen, would know not to attempt swimming if it could possibly avoid it.
Though the phrase seems to originate in the American South, it appears to proliferate through the Midwest too. It seems especially common in rural and farming communities, or previously rural communities where no doubt the behavior of chickens is common knowledge. The phrase implies something more than furious though. If the hen is mad, you’re even madder, so you are in fact furious.
To be madder than a wet hen shouldn’t be confused with phrases like mad as a hatter. In the second phrase, mad refers to crazy, not to angry. The first is specifically about temperament and not about sanity, and the use of mad to mean angry is more American than British. People in the UK are not familiar with the phrase and might interpret it to mean that you are feeling very nutty indeed.
In any case, avoiding such situations where you might get too angry is likely a good rule of thumb. There are actually a number of expressions that derive from the behavior of chickens, such as putting all your eggs in one basket, fussing like an old hen, ruling the roost, and getting up with the chickens. Doubtless if you do get madder than a wet hen, people are likely to be walking on eggshells around you.
I have conclusively discovered that wet hens are in fact not mad. Hey, inquiring minds wanted to know, right? I've heard some say that it refers to the practice of breaking a false brood by lowering the hen's temperature by submerging it in cold water repeatedly, which would perhaps elicit a less joyful response. Broody hens want to be left to sit.
Roosters would probably be a less compliant recipient for a bath. Madder than a wet rooster would make more sense.
I just bathed/ dipped six hens in just under an hour. I honestly thought they would be mad as all get out given the saying. I went in prepared to do battle because of the saying. I contemplated
having someone video the fiasco I was preparing for.
Garbed in gloves, goggles, bandanna and boots, I filled my 5-gallon Homer Bucket, caught the first one and lowered its feet into the bucket, bracing myself for the worst... and nothing. I scrubbed and rubbed and removed the chicken from the bucket and wrung it out a bit. Still nothing. Set it down, and started in on the next, and the next and the next finishing all six without incident. They sort of just float there and wait till you let them go.
Afterwards they stood around the chicken yard, looking sort of dejected and confused about life. Like something monumental just happened here, and they couldn't quite wrap their walnut sized little brains around it. Most stood on one foot, trying to shake their neck feathers back out. They looked sad. Like they suddenly understood both the meaning of life and that they are actually chickens. Like they suddenly were cast out of the Garden of Eatin and the world would never be the same. I'm sure they'll get over it.
If you've seen a hen in water, then you well understand the phrase and how it originated.
The term "mad" is yet another of those that points out the differences between American English and British English. "Crazy as a wet hen" just doesn't have quite the same impact, does it?