Know Your English Education

A spy or a decoy?

What is the meaning and origin of ‘stool pigeon’? (K Jayalakshmi, Chennai)

The expression is mostly used to show disapproval, and most dictionaries list it as being slang. When you refer to someone as being a ‘stool pigeon’, what you are suggesting is that he is a police informant. This individual is usually a criminal whom the police use to keep track of the activities of gangs. He is a spy whose information makes it possible for those in authority to arrest criminals. Such a person is also referred to as a ‘stoolie’. The word ‘pigeon’, by the way, consists of only two syllables — the first rhymes with ‘fridge’ and ‘bridge, and the final ‘eo’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The word is pronounced ‘PIJ-in’ with the stress on the first syllable.

The boss doesn’t trust Jai anymore. He fears that he may be a stool pigeon.

If the prisoners find out I’m the warden’s stool pigeon, they won’t hesitate to kill me.

There are several theories about the origin of this expression. I will deal with only one here. Most scholars agree that the word ‘stool’ in this context does not refer to the piece of furniture found in most houses; the one that peons used to sit on in government offices. Many believe that the word comes from ‘stola’, meaning the base or stump of a tree. In the past, hunters used to lay traps for hawks and other birds of prey by placing a pigeon on a tree stump. The pigeon was tied to the tree stump and, when a bird of prey landed on the stump, the hunter threw a net over it. The pigeon served as a decoy to entrap other birds; which is why one of the meanings of the expression ‘stool pigeon’ is decoy.

What is the difference between ‘funny ha ha’ and ‘funny peculiar’? (Mayank, Delhi)

This is an expression mostly used in informal contexts. Those of us who are in the habit of cracking jokes are fully aware that telling one is fraught with danger, for we don’t always get the kind of response that we are looking for. There are times when a joke has the listeners rolling in the aisles and, at times, it leaves them cold. The joke lays an egg — there is no reaction from the audience. It doesn’t make anyone laugh. The word ‘funny’ has two very different meanings in English. When you say, ‘She’s a funny girl’, it could mean she is someone who has a good sense of humour. It could also mean she is someone who is peculiar or strange. Therefore, when you ask someone before he tells a joke, ‘Is it funny ha ha or funny peculiar?’ what you would like to know is whether the joke will make you laugh (ha ha) or just leave you feeling strange or weird.

“Sujatha’s husband is a funny guy.” “Funny ha ha or funny peculiar?”

Some of his jokes were funny ha ha. But I found most of them to be funny peculiar.

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“Criticisms are like homing pigeons. They always return home.” Dale Carnegie

The writer taught at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. upendrankye@gmail.com


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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 12:27:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/know-your-english-a-column-on-language-by-s-upendran/article36398673.ece

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