I’m going to look at the names of some our most familiar birds and where they came from. It’s too long for one post, so I’ll do it in three parts.
English has imported lots of words from other languages. However, a large number of bird names would still be recognisable to our Anglo-Saxon forebears. They tend to be short one- or two-syllable words that describe common birds. Examples include crow (cráwe), duck (duce), goose (gós), sparrow (spearwa), starling (stærlinc), swallow (swealwe), thrush (ðræsce), finch (finc), raven (hraefn), gannet (ganot), owl (ulae), swan (swan), and wren (wrenna). There were often many variations on the spellings of words in what has become known as ‘Old English’, so the Anglo-Saxon versions of bird names in brackets are simply one version that has been recorded. The epic poem Beowulf may date back as far as the eight century, and it mentions several birds including the swan, gannet, raven and eagle.
The word bird itself, has Anglo-Saxon roots as do many other bird-related terms such as feather, nest, flight, and egg.
The various species known as tit in the UK (e.g. blue tit, great tit), were in earlier times known by the name mose which seems to have Anglo-Saxon origins. The prefix ‘tit’ was a later addition meaning small, and may have been added as an endearment. Titmose or tytmus soon became titmouse and later generations assumed, incorrectly, that these birds had been named for their mouse-like qualities. Titmouse was only widely shortened to the more familiar tit in the twentieth century.
Despite the heavy influence of Anglo-Saxon, a wide variety of modern bird names have arisen because of the influence of other languages. Familiar species such as the jay, buzzard, linnet, cormorant, hobby, merlin, falcon, pigeon, mallard, and quail were probably adopted into English from Norman French after William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings. Other birds such as the tern, auk, fulmar, snipe and skua have names that seem to be traceable to Norse, the language of Scandinavian invaders such as the Vikings.
A few established names for birds have Latin origins: the word vulturius was used by the Romans to describe the vulture; the yellow-coloured oriole is from aureolus meaning golden; and peregrinus (‘wanderer’) reflects the far-ranging travels of the peregrine. Two classic birds of the Scottish highlands have names derived from the local Gaelic – the ptarmigan and the capercaillie. One of the most familiar avian words, the gull, seems to have come into English from Welsh hinting at perhaps a much older Celtic ancestry. Meanwhile, the albatross probably has its roots in Spanish, the avocet may be an import from Italian, and pelican entered our language via ancient Greek.
One of the most surprising derivations for a bird name belongs to the partridge. The modern word originates from terms such as perdriz, introduced by the Normans. This comes from the Latin for partridge, perdix, and this in turn from ancient Greek (πέρδιξ). This Greek term is derived from a word that means ‘farting’, and is believed to refer to the characteristic burst of noise from the partridge’s wings as it suddenly breaks from cover and flies away. Think about that, next time you see one.