This unique Andy Griffith catchphrase has stumped experts on the English language

This figure of speech truly is a rare bird.

The Andy Griffith Show sure could coin a phrase. If someone says, "Nip it," you immediately think Barney Fife. Gomer himself was known for a few catchphrases, what with "Shazam," "Golly," and "Surprise, surprise, surprise."

Thanks to his folksy, Southern speaking style, Sheriff Andy sure had a way with words, too. In fact, there was one phrase, in particular, he was fond of saying. And it has linguists stumped.

The national public radio show A Way with Words, hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, explores the nuances and history of our language. The broadcast also welcomes questions from listeners. A few years back, an Andy Griffith Show fan named Iris stumped the two word experts. She wanted to know the origin of a frequently used Andyism.

Let's go back to the 14th episode of the sitcom, "The Horse Trader." In the first scene, Barney explains to Andy why he resists change. He specifically has a nit to pick with an automated stamp machine at the post office. He refuses to buy stamps from a "slot machine." So he writes a letter to the Postmaster General. He doesn't send it, though. You see, he doesn't have any stamps.

This prompts Andy to affectionately say while shaking his head in disbelief, "Barney, I'll tell you the truth, you are a bird in this world."

That is not the only time Andy calls someone a "bird in this world," his way to fondly label someone quirky. As A Way with Words explains, Andy later says the same to Aunt Bee when she fusses over the quality of her apple pie.

But here's the weird thing — Andy is the only person to use this phrase. Like, ever.

"I don't see this phrase anyplace else," Barnette says. The two hosts looked in every dictionary and dialect book — they even did a full text search of newspapers. Nobody else had ever written, "You're a bird in this world." Now that's cuckoo!

"I think the people who wrote this show coined this phrase," Barrett adds, "Or else Andy Griffith himself came up with it."

They speculate that the term might just be a colloquial spin on "rare bird" or "odd duck." Iris the fan wonders if Andy just liked the way it sounded, due to the purring internal rhyme of "bird" and "world."

Maybe, if we as fans start using this saying enough, perhaps it can finally make it into dictionaries. After all, Merriam-Webster added "Adorbs" and "Rando" to its dictionary in 2018.

Take a listen to the A Way with Words segment:

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jorel 2 months ago
I enjoy the old time phrases on Andy Griffith. I also like when Barney pronounces words "differently", causing Andy to say "What?". (therapeutic, inoculation)
cwboyfan56 2 months ago
I had a nun for a teacher in 2nd grade in 1963 and one of her favorite sayings was , “you’re a bird of rare plumage”. That was in Blessed Sacrament School on Beach Ave. in the Bronx NY.
RottyAngel 2 months ago
There are a couple of episodes where Barney refers to a soda as a "pop" I was under the impression that southerners never used the word "pop." I remember using that phrase when I visited the South, "What kind of pop do you have?" And the waitress looking at me like I had 3 heads.
I grew up in Oregon, everyone referred to carbonated drinks as pop. Then I moved to Utah in 1981, and met people from other parts of the country who said "soda", and it seemed like no matter which word I said, whoever I was talking to believed the other word was more appropriate. Many times over the years I've seen references to "soda pop" in books, magazines, and on TV, so I got in the habit of saying both words so nobody could squawk, lol!!
Larry RottyAngel 2 months ago
The phrase is "soda pop". What the pop means escapes me. Off topic: If cash is paper money, then there is no such thing as "cold hard cash" is there?
daDoctah 2 months ago
It's a shame we can't ask Paul Ford (who played the mayor in the film version of "The Music Man") or Meredith Willson (who wrote the play), because "you are a bird in this world" would fit right in with the odd expressions Mayor Shinn was fond of, like "you'll hear from me till who laid the rails" or "I couldn't make myself any clearer if I was a buttonhook in the well water".
Deb585 2 months ago
My mother passed away 2011 she was 93.
She would often relate the word BIRD to a person, like “she was a strange old bird” or “ he was stingy old bird”. She grew up in backwoods KY.
My dad was born in the early 1900 and he had a saying “I’m doing to if it hair lips grandma” . He would say this when my mom told him she forbid him to do something, I would love to know if anyone has heard of this phrase?
My mom (born in 1928, passed in 2013) referred to people as "birds" when she was displeased, usually strangers. "What are those 2 birds arguing about" when she witnessed contention on the street, or "where did that bird learn to drive?" when someone made a stupid mistake while driving. I never picked up on it though.
Demkiller 2 months ago
I've heard the Beatles call girls birds. Like birds meaning innocent, babes, kids!
My husband insists "bird" means girlfriend in British slang. But he doesn't know everything. ;)
Mirramanee 2 months ago
I personally have never heard that phrase anywhere else, but I do recall that on an episode of "I Love Lucy" that (after Lucy & Ethel just did or said something funny) that Ricky turns to Fred and says "We are married to two birds." I'm sorry I do not recall what specific episode it was from. However, the reference to birds seems to imply a reference to someone being odd or crazy in that context, too.
bigworm6917 2 months ago
How am I the only person to ever hear that saying. I've heard "bird in this world" my whole life. It just means someone is unusual or unique
DarioWiter 2 months ago
The individual who asked that question has far too much time in her hands.
Doug 2 months ago
groovy, gee whiz, and golly. Idiot writers that obviously didn't live in the real world!
Pacificsun Doug 2 months ago
Gee whiz was frequently used on Leave It To Beaver, and Groovy was very much a word of the Hippie generation. I think Gomer Pyle kind of butchered the word golly, but there was a time (young whippersnappers) when people punctuated their sentences not with swear words.
VenturaCapitalist 2 months ago
I saw a comment on a political website once:
"We've got to nip it; nip it in the butt."
RedSamRackham 2 months ago
Similarly in 1960s-70s only songwriters and faux-teens on sitcoms ever used the word Groovy. No real life teen ever did. ☺
Doug 2 months ago
Barney never used the phrase " run up an alley and holler fish". That phrase was used once and once only and that was by Gomer in season 4 episode #106 " Citizen's Arrest ".
remodel18 Doug 2 months ago
Citizen's arrest, citizen's arrest. I remember that.
Iceman 2 months ago
True when a family member passes some type of bird will visit you. When my mother passed away a Roadrunner would visit me when I was inspecting houses in the desert. She loved watching Wiley E Coyote and the Roadrunner. BEEP BEEP.
When my 1st cousin passed away and I live in the city guess what came to visit me BEEP BEEP.
remodel18 Iceman 2 months ago
The bird is a cardinal that is suppose to visit after someone passes.
LutherSutton 2 months ago
This is a phrase used in the Smoky mountains. It's common to the mountain folk and old timers who are born and raised there. It's one of they're many catch phrases and a part of the folk language. Ask some mountain folks that havent been as quick to progress with society and you'll probably find your answer. Maybe even throw on some traditional bluegrass music like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe or Jimmy Martin you may find something there.
Mockschnel 2 months ago
I'm still trying to figure out what "run up an alley and holler Fish" means . . Knotts has used that one several times.
harlow1313 Mockschnel 2 months ago
It is the equivalent of F-off.
cperrynaples harlow1313 2 months ago
It sounds like a sexual eufamism doesn't it...LOL!!!
Pacificsun harlow1313 2 months ago
If so, the show would've caught it, and scratched it.
harlow1313 Pacificsun 2 months ago
I don't see why you say that. It isn't profane. What would you say the phrase means?
Pacificsun 2 months ago
I think the phrase had a deeper (or hidden meaning which the writers tucked into the series). Meaning that the phrase wasn't meant to be taken in typical catchphrase fashion! Andy Griffith spoke many times about the respect he (and the show) expressed towards all the characters. And all with very unique personalities! Yet none were ever meant to be ridiculed. And Andy (the character) opposed the people who tried being mean spirited. In looking up the spiritual meaning of birds (https://www.thoughtco.com/birds-as-divine-messengers-animal-angels-124476) the symbolism is said to be that birds can be messengers of God. In other words, suggesting a person (with this connotation) might have a special insight (gift, or perspective) about ordinary things! Thus the phrase was meant to be an extraordinary compliment for the type of people who should be celebrated instead of being made fun of. TAGS had quite a few moral lessons to share, and I think this phrase was code for doing just that! It would be curious to know what Andy Griffith himself thought of it.
harlow1313 2 months ago
I sometimes use "strange bird," which has the same intent.
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