Sunday, 19 August 2012

Waterfowl Names Examined

As children waterbirds were probably our first introduction to wildlife. Few of us were not taken down to the local pond or park armed with bread for the ducks, swans and perhaps even geese.

Several times in our history these birds were highly prized, maybe for their meat and/or as the goal for some forgotten sport. Obviously in the earliest days these were hunted solely for their meat and it would have been then that hunters would have differentiated between the various waterfowl in order for them to be quite aware of what they hoped to bring back to the table. It will be noted that some of the species discussed below are not strictly waterfowl but simply birds associated with water. No apologies are made for include these species with which we are all so familiar.

Of course the ducks are probably the most populous of all waterbirds. They derive their name from the characteristic dabbling or diving underwater for food, and it comes from Old English duce meaning 'to duck, dive'. Oddly this was not the original Old English word for the duck, that was ened which is largely unchanged since the earliest known aneti of Proto-Indo-European beginnings.

It has always been debated as to why the Saxons stopped using ened in favour of duce, most likely that the act of 'ducking' was a different word to the noun 'duck' but eventually the former fell out of general use. Duckling is simply 'the small duck' and quite recent, while the mallard is simply an early corruption of 'male duck'.

While geese is simply a mispronunciation of goose, the singular form can be traced virtually unchanged through many ancient European languages. The very earliest form is the Proto-Indo-European ghans which has filtered down to modern English as 'gander', ie the male goose. Both the goose and ghans can only be an imiation of the bird's cry, most often said today to be a 'honk'. Gosling is clearly a 'small goose' and a rather recent development.

All herons share the basic body shape of a wading bird, long legs and a long neck. However they are unique in being the only birds with a long neck which do not fly with the neck extended but drawn right back against the body, a characteristic which makes them easily identifiable in flight. The name can me traced back to Proto-Indo-European griq or 'shriek, cry' and imitative of the cry of these birds. The crane is a similar bird and easily confused with the heron, indeed the name in Old English referred to both creatures and there is every indication they share the same derivation of their respective names. Egret is from Old French aigrette also meaning 'heron'.

Recently making a comeback to Britain, the osprey was named quite late. It comes from the Middle Latin avis prede literally 'bird of prey' and, while this originally referred to any hawk, was mistakenly thought to refer to this species.

Some names speak for themselves. Anyone who has had their food plucked right from their hand by a gull in flight will understand why they were named from the verb 'to swallow'. A dipper dives below the surface of the young streams seeking the larvae on which they feed, they also move with a decided 'dipping' motion either of which could have been the reason for the name. Most kingfishers do exactly what their name suggests, however the bird with which we are so familiar is also known as the halcyon. This refers to the supposed halcyon days of calm at the winter solstice when the mythical bird bred in a nest floating on the calm seas.

The young of the swan is known as a cygnet, derived from Latin cygnus and Greek kyknos both meaning 'swan'. These are from Proto-Indo-European keuk meaning 'to be white', this was from the time when all swans were considered to be white, before the discovery of Australia and its native black swans.

The swan itself has the strangest of origins. The term is Germanic, seen in Old English swan, Old Norse svanr, Middle Dutch swane, and Proto Germanic swanaz - ultimately from Proto-Indo-European swon 'to make sound'. Thus this is literally 'the singing bird' but swans are hardly the greatest singers of the bird world. Hence this is probably mythological, indeed in the Greek stories the swan is sacred to both Apollo and Venus and held to sing only in the last moments before death.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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