For the Birds Radio Program: John Ciardi and the etymology of bird names

Original Air Date: June 24, 1988

Poet and etymologist John Ciardi inspired Laura to start producing For the Birds in the first place. Thinking about him got Laura thinking about the etymology of bird names. (4:00)

Audio missing


John Ciardi

(Recording of a Common Loon)

Today is the birthday of John Ciardi, the poet and etymologist. His gravelly voice graced National Public Radio with lucid accounts of the origins of words in a regular program which first inspired this little program. John Ciardi died on Easter Sunday two years ago, and the void his death created won’t soon be filled. He would have been 72 today.

John Ciardi’s interest in etymology sparked my own interest in the origin of bird names. Even the word “bird” itself has an interesting beginning. During the Middle English period, Chaucer used the word inconsistently, spelling it variously b-r-i-d (yes, that’s brid) and b-y-r-d. The meaning varied, too–the word originated from the Anglo Saxon word “bredan,” meaning “to breed,” which gave “bird” its original meaning–a young bird (what we now call a chick). But by Chaucer’s time the meaning was expanding to include all creatures with feathers. It took until Shakespeare’s time for the spelling to stabilize at b-i-r-d and even longer for the word to lose its connotation of a chick instead of any avian creature. Back then the word “fowl” was used as the more inclusive term, equivalent to the modern meaning of “bird.” Nowadays, of course, the word still hasn’t stabilized completely. People don’t limit their use of it to describe animals with feathers—at a family reunion, a typical grown-up might refer to an unpopular uncle as an “old bird,” recount last week’s golf game when he shot two birdies, snap a picture while shouting, “watch the birdie,” and then, when the instant picture is out of focus, gripe that these cheap new cameras are “for the birds.” And after the reunion, when his four-year-old asks why Aunt Joanie has such a fat tummy, he might even find himself explaining the birds and the bees.

Individual bird species names have interesting derivations, too. Some of the most common bird names have the most complicated origins. Consider our good old robin. The American Robin was named for the English Robin-redbreast. That bird got its name from the diminutive nickname for Robert, which in turn means, depending on which reference you use, winner over all or bright and famous. Sparrow comes from the Anglo Saxon word for a flutterer, which was used to refer to a small bird. Although the word originally applied to any dickie bird, chances are the biblical references actually alluded to the House Sparrow, which has been a noticeable presence in all human societies from the beginning of civilization.

The name Starling comes from Anglo Saxon and literally means little star–probably from the star-shaped silhouette of this bird in flight. Although most people consider starlings the rabble of the bird world, sterling silver probably takes its name from this bird, because of the four birds on the silver coins of Edward the Confessor.

Orioles are named for the Latin word aureolus for golden– the human names Aurelia and Oriel share the same derivation. Plovers are named for the Latin word “pluvia” for rain, in spite of the fact that plovers have no particular association with rain. Mallards are named for the Old French word for male–which is certainly appropriate for the macho drakes if not for the hens. Merganser comes from the Latin for diving goose, loon comes from the Danish or Swedish word lom for a lame or clumsy person, and hawk comes from the Anglo Saxon word to have, in the sense of grasping or seizing.

All in all, the etymology of bird names is almost as interesting as the birds themselves.

(Recording of a Common Loon)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”