Dear Word Detective: I saw this on Ken Jenning’s website (www.ken-jennings.com) — he was looking for the origin of a phrase in his blog:
Etymology help! In an Eric Rohmer short story I was reading last night, some French expression had been translated as “my fine-feathered friend.” Thatâ€™s right, with the hyphen. So my whole life, Iâ€™ve been assuming that a “fine feathered friend” is one who is both fine and feathered. Could it be that the hyphen is actually correct, and the expression is limited to a friend with fine feathers (i.e., not coarse ones)? The Web has been little help here: Google Book Search shows more hits for no-hyphen, but many of the hyphenated examples are older, more literary, or otherwise seem more likely to be correct. The expression goes back at least to “My Fine Feathered Friend” (no hyphen), an ornithologically themed 1937 standard later made a hit by Glenn Miller, but did the phrase pre-date the song? And did it originate as a way to refer to birds, or humans? In other words, whatâ€™s it for? –Anonymous.
Yikes. I went to look for the lyrics to “My Fine Feathered Friend,” but nearly every site I found prompted a warning from Google about the site being a menace to my computer. Evidently lyrics sites are a major source of spyware and the like. Anyway, the lyrics are purportedly birdy but obviously applicable to humans as well: “I’ll make just one request, my sweet chickadee, Don’t find some cuckoo’s nest and fly out on me, We do belong together, what do you intend? You’ve got me up a tree, my fine feathered friend.”
“Fine-feathered,” with a hyphen, was definitely the original form, and its first known appearance predates Glenn Miller’s recording by nearly 200 years, occurring in Robert Patlock’s decidedly odd 1751 novel “The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins.” Patlock’s story is the tale of a traveler, reminiscent of Swift’s Gulliver, who wanders into an underground world inhabited by flying people, one of whom he marries. While I don’t have a copy of the book, it seems probable that “fine-feathered friend” is used in reference to this bird-woman, Youwarkee, and, given that this hyphenated form seems to be the original, the “fine” would refer to the “feathers” and not the “friend.”
It also seems likely that he meant “fine” in the sense of “beautiful” rather than simply “not coarse.” There was also, at the time, a popular proverb, “Fine feathers make fine birds” (meaning that good clothes “make” the person), which undoubtedly influenced Patlock and makes his use of the phrase (if indeed in praise of his flying fiancÃ©e) a nicely done pun.
So, to sum up, “fine-feathered friend” seems to have been, all along, a compliment to humans by allusion to a bird with beautiful plumage. The loss of the hyphen over time has simply clouded a very nice metaphor.