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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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From To Kill a Mockingbird, what does this mean? "John looked at him as if he were a three-legged chiken or a square egg." Is this a standard expression in US or else?

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I think this expression is perhaps one that Harper Lee may have heard in Alabama, where she grew up. In 1985, twenty-five years after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, Ronald Reagan made a joke about a three-legged chicken during a speech to the National Association of Realtors. Reagan was born and raised in Illinois, not too far from Alabama, and so perhaps this expression originates from somewhere around that region of the country.

In the novel, Atticus says that Judge John Taylor looked at Bob Ewell (during the trial of Tom Robinson) as if he were a "three-legged chicken or a square egg." The implication is that Bob Ewell's testimony was nonsensical. In the story, it is implied that Ewell was the one who raped his own daughter, Mayella; and yet in the trial, he testifies that it was Tom Robinson.

When recounting Judge Taylor's confused, incredulous expression, Atticus also says, "Don't tell me judges don't try to prejudice juries." The implication here is that Judge Taylor was looking at Bob Ewell as if he were "a three-legged chicken or a square egg" to communicate to the jury that Ewell's testimony was nonsensical.

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This is not a common expression in the United States as far as I know. It may have been a more common phrase in the 1960s when it was published or in the 1930s when the story was set. It is a more characteristically southern trait to make odd or hyperbolic similes. There are no three-legged chickens and there are no square eggs. So, John looked at Ewell like he was something unnatural, a fool or just downright silly. I don’t think this particular expression is standard, but the use of similes is pretty typical in the United States, but even more so in the south and south east.

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