What does popinjay mean?....
A vain or conceited person, one
given to pretentious displays.
This deeply insulting word is now rather
dated or literary. A good example can be found in Joseph Conrad’s
short story The End of the Tether of 1902: “When he looked
around in the club he saw only a lot of conceited popinjays too
selfish to think of making a good woman happy”.
Dictionaries say a popinjay was also at one
time the usual name for a parrot, and in that lies the origin of
the derogatory term. What could be more gaudily and squawkingly
in your face than a parrot? What more perfect term for an empty
chatterer, fop or coxcomb? Who’s a pretty boy, then?
It’s an ancient imprecation, already
of some age when Shakespeare used it in Henry IV, but the literal
parrot sense goes back even further, to the latter part of the fourteenth
century. It was also used for a device on a post to shoot at, the
archers’ equivalent of the quintain, usually it seems because
the mark was a figure of a parrot. That explains references such
as this one, in Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott: “When
the musters had been made, and duly reported, the young men, as
was usual, were to mix in various sports, of which the chief was
to shoot at the popinjay, an ancient game formerly practised with
archery, but at this period with fire-arms”.
The word travelled with the bird from Africa
and can be traced back to the Arabic babbaga, through Spanish papagayo
and Old French papeiaye. One of the earlier English versions (it
had lots of forms before it settled to the spelling we know now)
was papengay but it seems the ending was changed because people
thought the name referred to a sort of jay.