Today’s story starts with a pen knife. You’ve probably used one at some point, perhaps if you attended an arts and crafts class that catered to adults, who can presumably be trusted with such sharp objects. It’s a knife at the end of wooden or metal stick that resembles a pen if you squint, hence the name. Wrong.
The pen knife actually refers to a knife that was used to prepare goose feathers for use as pens, back before the ballpoint took the world by storm. You had to cut the feather in a certain way just to create the right pen nib, then mix ink by hand so that it was not so thick that it got stuck in the feather like so much ketchup in a glass bottle, but not so thin that it spilled all over this amazing new declaration that your pals John Adams and Ben Franklin were looking forward to reading. Tough stuff indeed. Besides the pen knife, the long-since-past relationship between pens and feathers is dead, as far as English is concerned, though one of the Spanish words for pen, “pluma,” does mean feather (think “plumage).
Is it a stretch to talk about goose feathers on a blog dedicated to food words? Maybe, since feathers are not exactly the delicious part of the goose. Still, geese are tasty, and they have at least two other honorable mentions in the idiomatic department: “Your goose is cooked,” and “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” So stick that in your feather and write with it. But you’ll need to use a pen knife first.