Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Stone the Crows

This story, "Stone the crows ... dig uncovers a humble patio," in The Scotsman drew my attention for a couple of reasons.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS were left red-faced when an excavation site they believed was a Norse settlement of "national significance" was actually a sunken patio. Experts rushed to the site when amateur archaeologists unearthed a meshwork of massive stones while exploring the ground in their garden.

Officials from Fife Council suspected the slabs had been ferried from a nearby beach about 1000 years ago to the homes of Viking settlers. The archaeologists hoped the tiny back garden in Buckhaven would provide the first evidence of Viking homes built on mainland Scotland.
First off, it's just a funny story. As a kid, I was certain every odd-shaped rock was either an arrowhead or a fossil, so I can understand the excitement and interest.

According to Chief archaeologist Douglas Speirs: "We looked at the slabs and guessed they could’ve been part of a Viking settlement considering the area has strong links to Norse culture. ... It had all the hallmarks of ancient building techniques with the types of stones used and the layout.” The interesting thing would be to try to find the original landowners who installed the patio in the 1940s to see if the "Viking style" of the patio was deliberate or just a coincidence.

The other thing about the story that's interesting is the title phrase, "stone the crows." The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as an "expression of surprise or disgust." (I wonder which way Speirs and his colleagues would have been using it.) There's no indication of the origin of the phrase, however.

Kel Richards, on the "ABC Classic FM Breakfast," looked at the phrase as the "word of the day" back on 14 October 2003:
"Stone the crows" is an old fashioned Aussie bush exclamation of surprise (or possibly exasperation or even disgust). My memory of the old "Dad and Dave" radio serial is that Dad Rudd was forever saying, "Stone the crows, Dave ..." There are variations on this expression: sometimes it's "starve" or "stiffen" or "spare" to crows. And the earliest citation for the phrase is, in fact, in the form of one of these variations. In a 1918 book called Saints and Soldiers we read: '"Starve the crows, " howled Bluey in that agonised screech of his.' (It just had to be someone called "Bluey" who first used the expression in Aussie literature, didn't it?)

Given the date of its first appearance in print (1918), it may have become a popular expression as soldiers' slang during the First World War. However, I can't find it listed in W H Downing's Digger Dialects (the best book on World War I Aussie slang) so I'm not sure. Today, it's only ever used for comic effect, as a deliberate bit of OBV (Old Bush Vernacular).

As for the origin of the expression -- none of the experts can suggest anything. A journalist once suggested that given the difficulty of hitting a flying crow with a stone -- or even a crow sitting on a fence with a stone (they'd take flight before the stone hit) -- that successfully "stoning a crow" would be so surprising an act, that "stone the crows" was a suitable expression of surprise. And that will have to do until a better suggestion comes along.
Googling the phrase turns up Australian and British citations with no real indicator of where the phrase may have originated.

James Briggs cites a March 2003 Q&A column in the Times in which Stefan Buczacki offers:
For many centuries, young children (and others) were employed as bird scarers, especially of crows. They used whatever means were available to frighten away the birds, hence the expression "stone the crows".

The Norfolk Labour MP, Sir George Edwards, who founded the National Union of Land Workers, even called his autobiography, written in 1922, From Crow Scaring to Westminster, and there are many references in old country accounts to "crow scaring", "crow keeping", "crow stoning" and "rook starving". The rewards were modest -- at the age of six, Edwards was paid a shilling for a seven-day week in Norfolk. In Gloucestershire, things were more varied -- the going rate was from 6d a day, although if you were unfortunate enough to live in Winchcombe, all you received was 1d or 2d plus a swede.
The other thing that turns up when googling "Stone the Crows" is a progressive soul band of the 1970s from Scotland.

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