Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.
Rolling off the Tongue
Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is . . . so-and-so.”
This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!
More Etymological Oddities
As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).
In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).
Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds,” they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!
Bird Names Gone Wild
Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.
But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).
Nowhere to Go but up?
Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the United States, the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late twentieth century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early seventeenth century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).
The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!
- Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
- Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68–71.
- Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
- Wells, D. pp. 25–26.
- Young, W. p. 34.
- Wells, D. p. 148.
- Young, W. pp. 39–40.
- Wells, D. pp. 37–38.
- Wells, D. pp. 229–230.
- Wells, D. p. 253.
- Young, W. p. 44.
- Young, W. p. 42.
- Young, W. p. 42.
- Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367–368.
- Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
- Farmer, J.S. p. 135.