The Bird Is The Word

June 25, 2017
3 mins read

There’s a simple and effective way to kick against the pricks, and to make it hurt, but which involves no violence. ANDREW JOHNSTONE explains.



In 1963 a band called The Trashmen took a song called ‘Surfin’ Bird’ to the top reaches of the US charts. It was their only hit but the song endured and these days is best know for the phrase, ‘The bird’s the word’, a line I happened across when I caught a segment of animated comedy show Family Guy on YouTube recently.

It was revealed to be star character Peter Griffin’s fourth favourite song ever and for about half the episode (‘I Dream Of Jesus’, Season 7, Episode 2) Peter drove everyone crazy with the question.

Peter: “Hey have you heard the word?”
Some Poor Sap: “What word?”
Peter: “The bird is the word.” 

But what does it mean? I had no idea until US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited NZ recently. I was driving around Hamilton when they started talking about it on the RNZ evening show. “Is the bird impolite?” intoned the presenter. “Well of course it is”, he added, fending off texts from the easily outraged. “I am simply asking the question to facilitate debate”.

This being public radio however, it was mostly thoughtful people sending in considered opinion laced with witty asides. It was all very amusing, but I had no idea why the ‘bird’ was being discussed. Maybe it was because I was in and out of the van and missed crucial bits like ‘Visiting US Secretary of State… motorcade… bemused American press’.

Rex Tillerson

It all came clear the next day when I went online and there it was, a story about Wellingtonians letting the US Government know what they thought of its current policy direction. Besides the much-reported ‘bird’, there was the thumbs down, some jeering and a big Greenpeace banner hanging from a crane (yes, of course there was).

The story went global and was for a day or two something of a hit. Was there a better way to get under the thin orange skin of the Trump than to flick him or his representatives the ‘bird’, asked the ‘Fake News Media’? While some Kiwis were horrified by it all (after all, the US saved us from the Japanese during World War Two and didn’t we owe them some kind of respect?), most it seems were comfortable with using the ‘bird’ to express discontent.

For the last couple of hundred years the world has been coalescing in on itself and we have been forced to examine and reflect upon how we interact with each other in light of the harm that has been set loose by disparate cultures being thrust together so unevenly. It has been a hard and grievous journey but the last 50 odd years of endeavour has yielded results that could be described by most standards as positive. And central to this process has been the USA.

With the recent and unexpected election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency (the worlds most powerful and influential leadership position) unified standards of human rights, environmental laws and a host of other measures designed to improve the way we interact with each other and the planet are suddenly under threat, and it is unsettling many.

President Trump

New Zealand has always been a world leader and lately I have been worried that we have forgotten our long tradition of social innovation and have fallen (somewhat) behind the frontlines of positive human endeavour, but on the streets of Wellington the other day we witnessed ordinary Kiwis standing up and offering the world a potent new weapon with which to fight retrograde politics. And this is how it goes:

Whenever a ranking member of he Trump Administration or the man himself is in town, take to the streets and flick them ‘the bird’. It’s as simple as that. Forget the Molotov cocktails, barricades and stone throwing; here is a non-violent way of making dissatisfaction clear. After all, nothing hurts a narcissist more than rejection, and if we have learned anything about Trump over the last few months it’s that he is a textbook narcissist, so let’s hit him where it hurts the most, in the ego.

As for the phrase itself The Urban Dictionary has this to say:

The Bird – To extend the middle finger and “flip someone off” is sign language for “Fuck you!”

‘Word’ originated in US Prisons. Original meaning was: “My word is my bond”, shortened to “Word”, meaning to “speak the truth”.

Bird is the Word = Fuck You!


Andrew Johnstone is Witchdoctor's Film & TV Editor. He also writes and produces music (with creative partner, legendary Waikato music producer Zed Brookes), is an avid gardener, former dairy farmer and food industry sales person. When he isn't making up stories he writes about the stories he sees on television and at the cinema. He is also fascinated by politics (the social democratic sort) and describes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his religion.

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