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Why do British Birds have Funny Names?

by John Pearson


British birdwatchers must know the names of a good two or three hundred separate species. They know the name even if they have never seen the bird.

But do we really pay much attention to these wonderful and often mysterious names? Or does familiarity breed contempt? For these names form a fascinating collection. For every obvious name there is an odd or an obscure one. For every obvious crossbill, razorbill, greenfinch, woodpecker, warbler, treecreeper, swift or flycatcher there is a mysterious wigeon, garganey, gadwall, bittern, siskin, pipit, shrike or twite.

An hour with the Concise Oxford Dictionary illuminates the origins of British bird names and shows us the debt that English owes to a whole range of other languages, both Romance and Germanic, from which it has made so many borrowings over the centuries.

Many birds owe their English names to the classical languages. Phalarope means “coot-foot”: in classical Greek phalaris means coot and pous/podos means foot – as in chiropodist. That very British-seeming bird the pheasant was originally introduced from the east: its name goes back to the Greek phasianos, bird of the then river Phasis in present-day Armenia.

Latin is behind a solid range of English bird names. Cormorant comes via the Old French cormaran from medieval Latin corvus marinus, sea-raven. Pratincole is derived from the Latin prati incola, meadow-dweller. Bustard we owe to the Old French oustarde and ultimately to the Latin avis tarda or slow bird, surely an insulting name for these fine creatures. Merganser is a diving goose, from mergere, to dive and anser, a goose. The peregrine is the wanderer from abroad, the foreigner – originally the person or animal that has travelled ‘per agrum’ – through the fields. Ortolan comes to us, via French and Provençal, from Latin hortulanus or gardener, hortulus being a small garden.

Plover comes, via Middle English – Chaucer’s English – and Old French plouvier from the Latin pluvia, rain, so it is the rain bird – also a regional name for the green woodpecker. Bittern seems to come via Middle English from Old French butor, itself derived from Latin butio and taurus, bittern and bull. Osprey is held to derive originally from Latin ossifragus, literally “bone-breaker”. Finally, oriole is fairly clearly linked to Latin aureus, golden.

Only a few of our bird names seem to be borrowed from the Romance languages, but we have avocet, from French avocette, itself derived from Italian avosetta. Guillemot is from the French name Guillaume; linnet from Old French linette, referring to lin, or flax, and the linseed enjoyed by the bird. Curlew, too, comes from the Old French courlieu.

Many more bird names recall not our Latin and Romance inheritance but the starker, tougher Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Scandinavian world. Auk is from Old Norse alka, skua comes via Faroese from Old Norse skufr. Snipe and tit are also probably of Scandinavian origin. Old English or Anglo-Saxon is the origin of lapwing, from hléapan, to leap – “with reference to manner of flight”, says the COD. Crane, too, is of Anglo-Saxon origin. And what about wheatear, originally wheatears or whitearse – sounds very Anglo-Saxon? The Germanic birdnames include redstart – staart is Dutch for tail.

Middle English is the source of dotterel, related to dote and dotage; the bird’s trusting nature apparently made it easy to catch, so they thought it stupid. Coot, too, is of Middle English origin, and so is rail.

Our language’s readiness to take words in from other languages is illustrated again by fulmar, a Hebridean dialect word coming perhaps from the Old Norse full, i.e. foul, with reference to its smell, together with mar, meaning gull. Gaelic gives us capercaillie (capull coille, horse of the wood). Ptarmigan comes from the Gaelic tarmachan, plus a pseudo-learned initial ‘p’.

Quite a lot of at first sight obscure English bird names seem to come from the noises they make. According to the COD this probably explains the names of the chough, crake, hoopoe, kittiwake, pipit, shrike, twite and whimbrel. Admittedly, an effort of the imagination may be required to recognise in some of these names the sounds the bird in question really makes.

One admires the skills of the etymologist so much that it comes as something of a shock to find that a whole raft of bird names are “of unknown origin”, including some of the oddest-sounding ones: gadwall, teal, godwit, pochard and grebe, scoter, puffin, knot, kite, serin and bunting.

If we look for a moment at domesticated birds, it is no surprise that the canary is named after the Canary Islands. But why are those islands so called? Because, in olden times, one of them was noted for breeding large dogs (canis in Latin). Budgerigar means “good cockatoo” in an Australian aboriginal language.

Finally, hobby comes from Old French hobet, a small bird of prey. But its learned name is falco subbuteo. Who now remembers the old football board game called Subbuteo – and which of us as children knew it was Latin for hobby – one sort of hobby anyway?

John Pearson, originally from Yorkshire, is now retired in southern France (with Hoopoes as garden birds) after a career with the European Commission. He has had a lifelong interest in both birds and language.

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