Waltz into any diner near a retirement community in Florida around 4 p.m., and you may have trouble snagging a table. That’s when hordes of senior citizens descend with only one thing in mind: the early bird special.
It turns out that the phrase “early bird special” is older than some of its most ardent admirers. According to Barry Popik, a language expert who’s contributed to several well-regarded dictionaries, the first written record of the term dates to a July 12, 1904, advertisement in the long-defunct Morning Oregonian advertising an “Early Bird Special.” It didn’t have anything to do with food, though — the notice hyped a special sale on “men’s summer underwear” at a former Portland department store called Olds, Wortman & King.
Of course, the term “early bird” dates to even earlier than that. “’The early bird catches the worm’ is a proverb that dates to at least 1636,” Popik writes on his website. “It means that it’s good to wake up early and get somewhere before everyone else.”
“Early bird specials” similar to the 1904 Portland sale became popular in the 1930s, when they almost always referred to special sales held during the first hours after a store opened. They usually featured a limited amount of merchandise, which were sold on a first-come, first-served basis.
An early bird special that appeared in the April 16, 1985 edition of the St. Petersburg Times. Photo: Google News
Later, the concept was adopted by restaurants. In the 1920s, there are ads promoting “early bird breakfasts.” The term migrated to dinners and suppers as early as 1950, when early specials were being advertised across the country. Popik notes, however, that the “early bird special” became quite popular between 1980 and 1990.
“I believe that the Florida ‘early bird specials’ also became associated
with the elderly at this time,” Popik told Yahoo Food in an email, pointing out that the term popped up in a 1985 episode of The Golden Girls, which was set in Miami, Florida:
Dorothy: “Morning, Ma. Working on the crossword puzzle?”
Sophia: “Nope. Just lining up a few dates. Let’s see. ‘Maria Malanero, survived by her husband Tony Malanero.’”
Dorothy: “You’re getting dates out of the obituaries? That’s sick.”
Sophia: “It is not sick. It’s practical. Life is for the living. Maria’s loss is my date for the Early Bird Special.”
Although early bird specials are often linked with Florida, Popik said that “it’s hard to say” where they’re actually most popular. “Allmenus.com says it has 255,000 menus [with the phrase ‘early bird’] in its database,” he explained, and they’re from around the country.
Apparently it’s not just Floridians who enjoy their early bird specials. Are you a fan of early bird specials? Let us know in the comments below!
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