When I posted the first in this recent sequence of egg-related blog entries (for first poultry-related post click here, for the second post in the series click here) Elliott, a reader from Alton in Hampshire, reported that when he read my article, one item on the automatically generated list of possibly related posts had to do with hen nights—the female equivalent of stag nights. The algorithm WordPress uses to find related blog entries wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that when I talked about (ahem) laying hens, I wasn’t speaking of people.
This is nothing new. Amazon once suggested that since I’d been looking at the listing for Flann O’Brien’s classic metafictional novel At Swim-Two-Birds, I might want to buy a swimsuit (UK: bathing costume). But having hen night come up as a related topic makes a nice lead-in to a subject I’d been meaning to take up for a while now.
Over here, a groom may have a stag night or stag do before the wedding and a bride may have a hen night or hen party, though these days a hen party is usually more of a hen pub-crawl. It’s common to see hen parties in restaurants, clubs, or pubs, groups of young women wearing identical costumes or at least identical T-shirts, and generally drinking a lot—and I mean a lot. It’s not unusual for the bride to wear an L-plate on a string around her neck; that’s the blocky red L on a white square that the law requires drivers with learner’s permits (UK: provisional licenses) to display on cars they drive until they pass their driving tests. And there’s always some kind of headgear: veils of one kind or another, or deelyboppers—those headbands with wiggly antennae on top. And what antennae they are (see illustrations). Hen parties here generally seem to involve a lot of drinking and a lot of raunchy references to sex.
When I got married in the US, I had heard of bachelorette parties, but only knew of one bride who’d actually had one. Most women had bridal showers (for UK readers, these are parties at which the bride-to-be is ‘showered’ with gifts to furnish her new home), tasteful afternoon affairs with cake and some silly games, nothing un-ladylike, nothing much that could by any stretch of the imagination be seen as racy. When I organized a shower 15 years ago, a saleslady at a California party store offered me a book of games appropriate, or so the publisher thought, for bridal showers. They might have suited women in 1940s, but not in the 1990s: there was a game about labeling the cuts of meat on a cow, with a space to write in your groom’s favorite steaks and beef dishes, and a relay race with brooms that involved sweeping up and down the room. I didn’t buy the book.
That vision of the life a newly married women could look forward to is, thank goodness, out of date, but it gives you the idea: US bridal showers are generally tame. British hen parties are anything but.
Hen is a term of affection here for any women or girl, especially among people in the north, who also use duck for the same purpose. If you’ve seen the animated film Chicken Run, you might remember that one of the chickens says to the others, “Face the facts, ducks”, while another says “Aye, hen” with a Scottish accent. British people got more of the joke of the movie than most Americans would have, underscored by the fact that many of the characters had northern accents. (According to the Internet Movie Database, http://www.IMDB.com, Tweedy’s farm is in Yorkshire; the road sign made into an airplane propeller reads “Halifax 32 mi”, which seems to clinch it.)
The phrase hen party goes back at least to the 1880s, but through most of the intervening years has meant any women-only gathering; the current use of hen party as a celebration for the bride before the wedding hasn’t made it into the Oxford English Dictionary yet (not even in the on-line version, which includes updates to the printed edition). The OED’s example from 1960 reads “A hen-party can be a very pleasant, relaxing affair, particularly for the older woman.”
Today’s hen parties aren’t meant to be relaxing, and are usually for younger women. The women at most of the hen parties I see around here wear fairy wings on their backs and dance around with wands, although hen parties can take on any of several themes. If they aren’t in fairy mode, they may be wearing school uniforms, although hemmed up to here and unbuttoned down to there. It’s too much like a paedophile’s fantasy for my taste, and a long cry from No Sex Please, We’re British. It’s clear that some British people are a lot more forthright about sex than American stereotypes of the British would lead you to think, and I have to admit I was a bit shocked to find Wiggle Willy deelyboppers displayed on the wall of the party store near me that doubles as a post office. Standing in line to buy stamps, I certainly didn’t expect to see little sparkly phalluses on headbands, there by the birthday candles and balloons.
It’s apparently part of a trend for young women to party more like young men do. In young men, getting falling down drunk in public and looking for casual sex is called laddish behavior; more and more young women, called ladettes—a word that has made it into the OED—are doing the same, and some find it a worrying social development.
Whichever way you look at it, a party of young women wearing penis headgear is something not ordinarily seen in the USA. To prove I’m not making it up, here are some photos of the hen party gear I found on sale at the aforementioned post office. I couldn’t persuade any of my friends to model them—you’ll see that I pressed an uncomplaining pumpkin into service—and you can see lots more photos using Google’s Image Search feature and looking for hen party. If you look for products to buy for hen parties, you’ll find items a lot more explicit than what I’ve presented here.
Now, what can I do with the hen party accessories I bought in order to take the pictures? How about this: Anybody who posts a comment on this blog entry will be entered into a drawing and the winner will receive some items from these photos (if the winner wants them, of course). That should either bring in a lot of comments, or ensure I get no comments at all.