2 canaries

Idiomatic Origins: Bye-bye, birdie!

I’m a canary.

One intrinsic characteristic of introverts is a propensity towards overthinking. And overthinking was what I was doing as I drove to the physiotherapist recently.

Half a block away, this thought popped into my head: I’m a canary.

A little more context might be helpful …

In pre-pandemic times, at a physio appointment, my therapist looked at me, mid-treatment, and announced, “You’re a canary.” No doubt she caught the look of confusion. Then she gave me a sideways glance and a reassuring smile as she quickly added, “I’m a canary too.”

Elizabeth’s comment was the original muse for this column’s idiomatic content: “a canary in the coal mine.”

If someone says you are “a canary” or “a canary in the coal mine,” it is not an insult

Never would a canary, ever, be seen in a coal mine, unless under duress. And that is what happened in the early 1900s when it was discovered that canaries were an effective early-warning system for the presence of toxic gasses, such as carbon monoxide. With that revelation, the trills and warbles of imprisoned songbirds could be heard in mineshafts everywhere, so much so that they no doubt brought a little comfort into the depths of what was otherwise a dark, dreary, dirty worksite. If the trills and warbles ceased, the silence was “heard” and the miners’ avian alarm was checked immediately. A vacant perch meant that the mine should be exited expeditiously.

Before you start feeling mildly outraged at the fate of these songbirds, they often recovered from the effects of the gas. In an article titled “The Tunnellers,” in the Nottingham Evening Post (13 May 1936), it was noted that a compassionate wartime commander extended a three-strikes-you’re-out pardon to canaries that were being used to detect gas, wherein a canary, if gassed three times (and obviously having recovered), would be discharged from duty and be dubbed “P.B.” (Private Bird).

Still, birds should not be caged, let alone imprisoned in a mine, and the practice, which lasted until the late 1990s, is no more. Now, early-warning systems are, thankfully, feather free.

If someone says you are “a canary” or “a canary in the coal mine,” it is not an insult. It may, rather, be a compliment. It may mean that you are more sensitive to things around you (that you sense things before others do) or that you respond to things more quickly.

The idiom has also been used to reference climate change indicators; for instance, the rate of glacial melting is definitely “a canary in the coal mine” for climate change.

Back to the thought, I’m a canary. It is a good realization. And one I would not have had without the insight of my physiotherapist.

The good news is that we no longer have to say, “Bye-bye, birdie!”

(No canaries were harmed during the writing of this column.)

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