Logophily: More Birds

linguistic shenanigans and writing tidbits

~by Joel Patton

Crow[1]. Merle[2]. Gull [3]. Raven [4].
Raptor [5].
Falcon and tercel [6].
Parrot. Parakeet [7].
Hawk [8]. Kite [9]. Shrike [10].
Jay [11]. Swallow [12]. Starling [13].
Woodpecker. Sandlapper [14]. Plover [15].
Wing. Feather. Pinion [16].
Buzzard [17]. Gizzard [18]. Crop [19].
Vulture [20]. Stork [21].
Avian. Ornitho- [22]. All the way back to bird [23].

1.Crow is an old Germanic word. . . it seems to go back to crow in the sense of cry out.

2. Blackbird in French. (Not black bird, but the specific type of black bird that is a blackbird.) There are related dialect and obsolete words in English.

3. From a Celtic word meaning weep — that’s two raucous birds named after the fact that they’re raucous. More will follow.

4. Raven seems to be from the same root as a later Latin word meaning fart. . . the OED seems to posit that related older family names might come from that fact, rather than the birds. I learned as a result of this poking around that ravening and ravenous don’t have anything to do with ravens, or vice versa, as I’d always assumed. It’s from an unrelated word, ravin, which we’ll get back to in another footnote, somewhere way, way down below.

5. OK, back to ravin for this one: raptor means thief, more or less. But the root word is the same word as rape. I can’t tell (because remember, I’m not doing primary research here. . . I’m just looking at other texts, mostly the OED) whether the original sense of rape was the kidnapping (which was implied) or the sexual violence — it can just mean steal, but those two meanings seem to have been conflated forever (again, based on my exceedingly brief look). The other sense of raptor is newer. It’s a lexeme talking about a certain kind of dinosaur, with just raptor being short for velociraptor, popularized by Michael Crighton’s and then Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. It’s taken over, since large meat-eating dinosaurs are arguably cooler than large meat-eating birds. Sometime around 2003 or so, I was discussing bird-of-prey raptors on a mailing list, and someone chimed in that they’d never heard the word used like that before.

6. Falcon seems to come from sickle, for the claws. Neat. A male falcon is called a tercel, and the idea is that either he’s the a third the size of the female, or that he comes from the third-laid egg, which is smaller. Neither one is quite right, but what the hell. As a side note, there was a type of cannon named after the falcon, and the OED notes that types of guns were often named after birds of prey. . . musket turns out to mean sparrowhawk. Cool.

7. Nobody’s quite sure. I’d always thought parrot was from the Spanish pajaro, but there are apparently “formal as well as semantic difficulties” with that etymology. Both might be dimunitives of Pierre, and there’s the odd detail that the name Parrott (or similar) shows up in English just a couple of times before the bird-word is attested.

8. Hawk is another stealing word: a hawk is a hawk because it hawks things. The selling kind of hawk is unrelated: it’s back-formed from hawker, which is from a German word (meaning either carry or squat, for the type of peddlar involved) whence we also get huckster. Hawking up phlegm is yet another thing altogether. . . it’s onomatopoetic, apparently.

9. Kite shows up in Old English, but in no other languages — there aren’t any related words. It means kite, apparently. The toys are named after the birds, because they hover overhead, high in the sky.

10. Shrikes are also raucous birds: it’s the same root as shreik.

11. Nobody knows, but the OED notes that it’s not the same root as gai, whence gay. Too likely to be true, I guess.

12. Nobody knows, but it’s pan-Germanic. Most of the sources I found noted somewhat ominously that the etymology is disputed. In any case, it might be related to the verb.

13. The Old English is stare, and the -ling is apparently diminutive, thought that suffix isn’t usually used that way in Old English. Hey, check this out: a ploughman was known as an ierðling, an earthling, and while I was rattling around in that etymology, I found that in Old English, earthling can also mean some sort of bird (though it’s not clear which sort of bird). (I like to think that it was a penguin, the which is clearly impossible.)

14. Finally, a couple of easy ones. I’ll just use this extra space to talk about the windfucker, which is an Elizabethean-era name for the kestrel. There’s also a hawk known as a fuck-wind, from about the same era.

15. It’s either onomatopoetic (likely) or having to do with pluvia, rain (unlikely). The following thought isn’t an original one, but why the hell are emeralds often described as being the size of plovers’ eggs? (Hmm. . . a quick web search shows results that almost all come from or reference the old text game ADVENTURE, so maybe I’ve just been misled by reading too many fellow nerds.)

16. Wing means wing, and feather means feather, but some of the older quotes are tough, apparently — an older word for wing was feathers. The Norman invasion brought forms of pinion, which can mean wing or feather. That word is related to pennant.

17. Nobody knows, but it’s French.

18. Also French, clearly. . . the etymology seems a little unsure, but it refers to the cooked version of the same. Maybe.

19. The bird’s body part crop is older than the field crop, but they come from the same place, in a roundabout way: crop means lump, so a bird-crop was a bird-lump (of a specific kind). The crop is also the top of a plant (and later the top of lots of things, including whips, hence riding crop), so the food-sense is transferred from that: people took off the tops of the plants to eat them. Bonus words: group is from the same root (it’s a lump of things or people; the original sense in English was fine-art arrangement), and a croupier was originally (figuratively) like a shotgun rider: he’s the guy who rides on the rump (or croup) to help you out.

20. From Latin vultur, which means vulture.

21. Stork is related to stark, which means (or can mean) stiff. Alternately, it’s from the Greek work for vulture. (That word probably means vulture, too.) (The placement of these two words in this piece is in this case a happy coincidence. Language combines nicely. Coincidences happen constantly.)

22. The first is Latin, the second Greek. The roots both mean bird.

23. We’ll end with another unknown: bird originally meant chick (in the same way that rabbit originally meant baby rabbit), but there aren’t any cognates. Nobody knows where the word comes from. That’s how things go.


Joel Patton is a potter in Travelers Rest, SC.