Monday, September 3, 2012

Avian Etymologies

I like thinking about bird names.  I've written about them before from different angles: about ones that are named after people; about what names they should have; about how they should be written; and maybe others. 

What I've been thinking about recently is the words for birds themselves.  It seems to me that words for birds are particularly interesting - from the unusual words (Owl, Osprey) to silly ones (Tit, Booby, Goatsucker), to obvious ones (Woodpecker, Stilt) to mysterious ones (pretty much everything else). How did these words evolve?  Are there trends?  Stories?  I did some digging through the OED - Online Etymology Dictionary to see what I could find.

The major trend - one I probably should have seen coming - is that a lot of bird names are echoic, or onomatopoeic.  In other words, the birds were named after the sounds they made.  It makes a lot of sense: naming a bird is great for when when there is a bird with either a) a unique call or b) not really another obvious thing to name it.  Here are some of the birds whose names originated because of their call:

  • Owl - The word "owl" derives from the Latin word ulula, which, sure, sounds like an attempt at a hoot.
  • Jay - from Late Latin's gaius, which is likely imitative.
  • Crow - from Old English's crawe.
  • Heron and Egret - These are sorta related.  The origin of "heron" is uncertain, but it's likely derived from the Proto-Indo-European word qriqi, which is thought to be echoic.  When that word reached the Old Provincal language in southern France around 1500, it had become aigreta, from which "egret" derived. 
  • Finch - from a couple old German words like vinke and Fink, all thought to be imitations of the birds' call note.
  • Goose - not really a surprise here. 
  • Killdeer - not surprising, either.
  • Warblers - not echoic in the correct sense, of course, but named after the fact that they sing.
  • Curlew -  may be imitative of its cry, or also from an Old French word corliu meaning "runner, messanger" because they're good runners (?)
  • Auk - of Scandinavian origins.
  • Shrike - Yup, and probably related to "shriek"
  • Chickadee - Obvi, first recorded in 1838.
  • Bobolink - first used in American English in 1774, when it was known as bob-o-Lincoln.  Odd.
Some other birds were named, interestingly, after names for people:
  • Petrel and Parrot -  Seems both dervice from the name Peter.  Petrels, so the (unconfirmed) story goes, were named for their habit of flying with their feet on the surface (think Storm-petrels): "walking on water" like the apostle Peter did on the Sea of Galilee.  Parrot, on the other hand, likely stems from a perrot, a version of Pierre.  
  • Magpie -  These chattering birds were simply called pie in the original Latin, and the "Mag" part was added because it was a shortening of the name Margaret, a c. 1600 English slang term for talkative women. 
  • Robin - a relative of Robert.  The term dates back to at least the 1300s, when the legend of Robin Hood was born.
Some other random interesting ones:
  • Cormorant - results from the joining of corvus marinus, or Sea Raven.
  • Mallard - likely came from the Latin masculus (which became mallardus in Middle Latin), which referred to any drake duck.
  • Plover - from the Latin pluvia meaning "rain," because their spring arrival coincided with the start of the rainy season. 
  • Vireo - The word is used by Pliny in Latin to describe some kind of green bird (from the root virere), and apparently was just later used to describe the North American birds by accident.
  • Wren - from something Germanic, but no one's really sure what.
  • Flamingo - from the Greek phoinikopteros meaning "red-colored."
  • Bunting - the word bountyng was used to describe the bird in the 1300s, but no one's really sure why.  According to this valid internet source, if might from from the Welsh bontinog, which means "big-assed."!
Cool stuff, huh?  But what about the word "bird" itself?  Well, it's not really clear how we English-speaking folks came to use "bird" to describe all these winged creatures.  Typically, Old English speakers used fugol to talk about birds, and used bridd to talk about "young birds or nestlings."  Bridd somehow became bird, but no one really knows where bridd came from, as it has "no cognates in any other Germanic language."  Fine with me, I'll keep the mystery.   


Jason Kessler said...

Fascinating stuff. Right up my alley. Thanks.

Uncle Jas said...

Fun stuff Nick.

John B. said...

I wonder if bridd could have originated with pre-Roman Britons and slipped into Old English that way. Also, it's interesting that English has dropped the use of fugol even as German has kept the use of its cognate vogel.

NickL said...

Yeah, John, I think you're probably right. The online etymology (link fixed in post) says that the brid/bird/bridd work may go back to "an ancient period." Not sure where or when, but sounds cool.

cstar said...

Love this!

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