Have you ever heard a parrot say the phrase “Polly want a cracker”? Where does this phrase come from? And how did it become their catchphrase?
The Origin Of “Polly Want A Cracker”
The phrase “Polly want a cracker” was first used in a satirical picture from 1848. In the cartoon, a boy is seen about to hit a parrot. The joke is that a cracker is both a biscuit and the boy (who is about to crack the bird).
This picture was first featured in a magazine called “The John Donkey”. And since then, the phrase has made several other appearances that have made it even more recognisable.
But why “Polly”? And why do parrots love crackers?
Parody Article – The Second Usage Of “Polly Want A Cracker”
The second recorded appearance of the phrase “Polly Want A Cracker” was in an article from the newspaper “Bunkim Flag-Staf and Independent Echo”.
But, be aware, this was not an ordinary newspaper, it was a parody. Think of it as the Victorian version of The Onion or The Babylon Bee.
In an article written in 1849, someone wanted to sell their parrot, and in the description, they said that the parrot would often say the phrase “Polly want a cracker”. It’s not hard to see why the Victorian people would have found this funny.
Nabisco – The Third Usage Of “Polly Want A Cracker”
And of course, where’s there’s a funny-sounding phrase, it won’t be long until we start talking about corporate America.
You might not have heard of Nabisco, but if you’ve ever eaten Chips Ahoy, Oreos, or Teddy Grahame, you’ve eaten their biscuits.
In 1876, Nabisco released a new salty cracker called the “Saltine Cracker”. And they decided that “Polly want a cracker” would be the best slogan for their new savoury snack. It’s not known why they went for this, perhaps they thought it was recognisable or maybe they just found it funny.
Treasure Island – The Fourth Usage Of “Polly Want A Cracker”
The fourth recorded usage of “Polly want a cracker” is in the book treasure island from 1883. Even though this book is now about 200 years old, it’s still read and enjoyed by millions of people around the world.
If you like pirates and the antics they got up to, there’s a high chance you’ve read this book. Many of the myths we believe about pirates (such as walking the plank) stem from the book.
Within the book, there is a parrot who uses the phrase “Polly want a cracker”. But why did the parrot say this?
Why Did Parrots Say “Polly Want A Cracker”?
Although this is somewhat debated, some believe that the phrase “Polly want a cracker” is inspired by pirates.
Although, when I say “pirates”, I’m talking more about our romanticised idea about pirates than the brutal reality of actually being a pirate.
In many pieces of fiction, parrots were popular travelling companions on pirate ships. Perhaps the idea is that pirates went to remote islands where parrots were found.
Because food didn’t keep too well on pirate ships, they had to eat a lot of dried food like crackers. Of course, being animals, parrots were likely partial to stealing some of that food. And so, “Polly want a cracker” would have been a reasonable phrase to use.
How The Virgin Mary Named Parrots “Polly”
When we hear the name “Polly” many of you will immediately be thinking of a parrot. Just like a dogs name is Rover and a Lion’s name is Leon, a parrots name is Polly.
But did you know that Polly is from Mary? I know it sounds weird, but hear me out.
Mary was a traditional parrot name. When they were first discovered, parrots were thought to be so beautiful and pure that they symbolised the virginity and piety of the Virgin Mary.
The name Mary was altered to “Moll”. Due to the trend of rhyming, “Moll” became “Polly”. And just like Ed becomes Eddy, Poll became Polly.
Grammatical Issues Of “Polly Want A Cracker”
Of course, this wouldn’t be GrammarHow if we didn’t point out some of the bad grammar in the phrase “Polly want a cracker”.
The usage of “Polly” rather than “I” suggests it’s in the third person. Yet when it says “want” not “wants”, it becomes first person.
There is nothing grammatically incorrect about talking about yourself in the third person. But if you do that, you should say “Polly wants a cracker”.
If you’d rather be normal and talk in the first person, the phrase should be “I want a cracker”.
Polly Want A Cracker – What Does It Mean?
Usually, in these articles, we tell you some deep hidden meaning of a phrase that has little to do with the words within it.
But, “Polly want a cracker” doesn’t have a deeper meaning. All it means is that I (who am called Polly) would like to eat a cracker.
It’s a phrase that we like to teach parrots, probably because it sounds funny.
This is not the kind of phrase you would probably need to analyse in a literature or philosophy class.
“Polly Want A Cracker” In The Nirvana Song “Polly”
Some of you might like the band Nirvana. Although they had plenty of popular songs, one of their lesser-known songs was called “Polly”.
This song is about the real events of a girl who was kidnapped and raped. She was held in captivity and pretended to like her captor so that she would be able to escape. In the end, her plan worked. But what’s interesting about this song is that it’s written from the point of view of her kidnapper.
In the song, the phrase “Polly want a cracker” refers to the fact that even though she was trapped, she played along with it to impress the person she wanted to escape from.
And there we have the origin and meaning of the phrase “Polly want a cracker”. And we also have everything else you could want to know about it.
Next time you watch a film with pirates and you notice their parrot using “Polly want a cracker”, now you can annoy all your friends by telling them about where the phrase comes from.
It started as a funny cartoon, and it went on to become the go-to phrase for parrots on board pirate ships in many pieces of fiction. Perhaps in the future, it will take on a new meaning.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.