Issue 174, page 1

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bird words (part 2)

The use of birds for hunting is called falconry from falcon, a synonym for "hawk". At least, that's what falcon means in everyday speech though, to a falconer, only the female merits this title. It is the female hawks which are used for hunting as they are larger and stronger than the male. Their name derives from falx the Latin for a "reaping-hook", an allusion to their sickle-shaped talons. Falconers refer to a male hawk as a tercel (or tiercel), a name which has its origin in the peculiar medieval belief that every third hawk egg was smaller (some say by one third) and male.

The preferred species for hunting was the imposing peregrine falcon or falcon-gentle. Peregrinus is Latin for "foreigner" and derives from per- ("through") and ager ("field"), implying "one who wanders through the fields". Our word pilgrim is another, much-altered, form of peregrinus which wound its way to Modern English by way of the Italian pellegrino and Middle English pelegrim. In the middle ages, most falcons used in hawking would be taken from the nest as fledglings. One notable exception was the peregrine falcon which builds its nest on inaccessible precipices. Thus the bird had to be captured while it was "on pilgrimage", hence peregrine falcon and one of its alternatives, the pilgrim hawk.

The gyrfalcon, a large bird once used for hunting heron, takes its name from its habit of circling in flight (compare gyrate, gyroscope). The classical elegance of gyrfalcon didn't sit well with the common herd who reduced its name to the more manageable jerkin.A gyrfalcon or jerkin

Pedigree is a word with unsuspected avian connections. Traditionally, genealogical tables showed the relationships between a married couple and their children with a symbol of three lines, rather like an upright arrow. With a bit of imagination, these radiating lines look like the splayed toes of a large bird and, in fact, that is exactly what pedigree means. It comes from the Old French piť de grue or "crane's foot".

Next time you are carving a roast fowl, why not ask your dinner guests who would like the furcula? Our guess is that, unless you are entertaining a group of veterinarians, your offer will be greeted with a round of polite demurrals. Next, ask who'd like the merrythought and observe the difference in reaction. Both terms are alternative names for the wishbone

Poppinjay is usually applied metaphorically to mean someone with outrageously colorful clothes though, literally, it means a parrot. The word has had a long and varied history since its origin in the Arabic babagazh, which is thought to represent the cry of an African bird. The earliest (12th century) Middle English form was papegai, the n creeping in about a century later to give papingay. This insertion of an n happens spontaneously from time to time. It turned the nightegale into the nightingale and made those who make a passage into passengers, not "passagers".

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