Issue 173, page 1

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bird words (part 1)

Have you ever noticed how many birds have people's names? There's the martin and the robin for a start and in Britain, very young children call any small bird a dicky-bird.* Less obvious is the jay, Jay being the anglicized form of the Latin name Gaius. These names date to the late middle ages when personal names were applied to various birds. With some birds these names were added to existing names. Thus, the daw became the jackdaw and the pie became the magpie (where mag- is short for Margaret).  At the same time, the wren became known as the jenny-wren, a name that doesn't seem to have taken but it survives in the cryptic English folk jingle "The robin and the jenny-wren are God Almighty's cock and hen."

The Hawaiian oo bird should not not be confused with the ou, a related bird also from those islands. The oo, a species of black and yellow honey-creeper, is now extinct, a fate perhaps foretold in its name which is pronounced oh-oh.

It has been said that "horses sweat, men perspire, while ladies merely glow". The physiological process is identical yet the word used varies according to context. Similarly, the way we say to defecate depends on whether we are in a clinic, a nursery or a sports bar... or an aviary. Birds, especially hawks, don't void their bowels or go poo-poo, they mute or, even more obscurely, they are said to spice. [Feel free to insert your own joke about spiced food and sidewalk cafés - M&M]

The pigeon gets its name (by a somewhat tortuous route) from the Latin pippare "to peep". To make 'peep-peep' sounds, that is, not 'to spy upon'. This is odd as pigeons go coo-coo, not peep-peep. By this reasoning one might expect the widgeon to go "weep-weep" or "woo-woo" but it doesn't because it's a duck, not the audience of a daytime talk-show. The origin of widgeon is unknown though many guesses have been offered, which brings us to the subject of pigwigeon. Some sort of distinction should be awarded to the word pig wigeon (or pigwidgin). Is it perhaps the confused love-child of a pig and a widgeon? Well, here is what that final arbiter of all lexical issues, the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), has to say about it:

Of obscure origin and meaning.

See what we mean about the award? It's not every day that we find a word that stumps the OED.

The arling is also known as clod-bird, clod-hopper, fallow-smiter or wheatear.  The mild-sounding wheatear is actually a corruption of white-arse from the bird's white rump. This name parallels that of the redstart which is a form of red-arse. Then there's arsefoot, a name applied to various birds with feet placed near the rear.

The bustard was a huge bird which existed in southern England until recent centuries. Its name comes from Latin avis tarda, "slow bird" though it was a fast runner when roused. Our all-time favorite bird name is the butter-bump - a dialect name for the bittern.

The toy kite and the construction-site crane both take their names from their resemblance to the birds of those names. There is also a plasterer's tool called a hawk, a fact which was probably known to Shakespeare when he had Hamlet say "I am but mad North, North-West: when the Winde is Southerly, I know a Hawke from a Handsaw". The pun is doubled by Shakespeare's use of handsaw, which is not just a tool but is also another name for the heron.

[More bird-brain ramblings next week -M&M]

* All languages seem to have special words used only by very small children, words that are abandoned as the children grow. Such words are termed hypochoristic

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