Singing Like a Russian Canary
The 10 sleeper spies who came in from the not-so-cold were discovered not because of stellar investigative work by the CIA, but because someone sang like a canary. At least, that’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters after engaging in a very different kind of singing: a Putin-and-spies singalong that he said featured patriotic songs like “From Where the Motherland Begins,” which has been described as an unofficial KGB anthem.
At the same press conference at which he revealed the songfest, Putin said he knew who betrayed the agents. “It was the result of treason,” he said. ”It always ends badly for traitors: as a rule, their end come from drink or drugs, lying in a ditch. And for what?”
Given the context of the spy ring, Putin’s description of actual singing highlights the metaphorical use of the verb “to sing” to mean a form of betrayal.
The American underworld adopted the use of the verb around 1930 to mean “to inform to the police,” an extension of its previous meaning of “to break from evasion, or from false cover, to tell the truth,” according to Eric Partridge’s “A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” (edited by Paul Beale). The bad guys weren’t able to hold on to sole ownership of the “informant” connotation of singing for long, though; the police were using it by 1940 and it had entered general usage by 1950, according to Partridge.
He writes that singing like a canary is an elaboration of the one-word version and was used mostly by the police. It turns out, though, that canaries are far from the only animals associated with informing on your former partner(s) in crime. You probably already knew that but never really thought to connect the dots proving that animals are the ultimate traitors. After all, aside from canaries, there are also rats, stool pigeons and finks (which is apparently the German word for “finch”). And what do they all do? They squeal – just like a pig.
It was Robert Allen Palmatier who opened my eyes to the plot afoot in the animal kingdom, in his insightful and unexpectedly funny (if you like that sort of thing) book “Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors.”
“The canary bird sings its heart out, in its little cage, for a reward of bird seed,” writes Palmatier. “The human canary sings his or her heart out, in a big ‘cage,’ for a plea bargain and a reduced sentence.”
Unlike canaries and finches, rats don’t sing, even if the effect is similar. “Besides deserting sinking ships, rats refuse to live in harmony with the humans who have fed and housed them for centuries. Human rats betray ‘honor among thieves’ by informing on their fellows: i.e., they rat on them,” writes Palmatier.
As for pigs, the word may derive most of its renown in the world of metaphors from its use as a derogatory term for police officers, but the verb most associated with the animal means “to inform on a partner in crime,” he writes, adding: “The first thing a pig does when it is picked up is to squeal. This is often the first thing a crook does, too: squeal on his/her fellow crooks in exchange for a plea bargain.”
Perhaps Putin’s real goal in spiriting the spies back to where the motherland begins was to make sure they wouldn’t be serving 20 to life in a certain high-security correctional facility in upstate New York. You know, the one whose name echoes what the Russian president might have said in English if he were exhorting a bunch of spies to exercise their vocal chords with him.
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