You don’t have to be an expert to work out how the blackbird got its name. The names of some birds are strikingly obvious. The blue tit, the long-tailed tit, the pink-footed goose, the goldeneye, these names helpfully tell you if you’re looking at the right species. But not all are this straightforward.
From call sounds to behaviour, names can tell us a lot about a species. Some birds are named after their method of building a nest, others after the person who first discovered them. Some are downright weird.
Named after their sound
Think of the chough, the chiffchaff, the song thrush, the cuckoo – many birds are named after their distinctive song or call. Some are more obvious than others. The original form of the word 'kite' was probably 'kutja', and being closely related to the German 'kuaz' (barn owl) this is thought to actually refer to the screech owl. The 'u' sound of these words is thought to imitate the call of the owl, hence the Old English form of the word 'ule', and the 'k' and 't' could then come from the word 'cat', as in French owls were referred to as 'chat-haunt' (screeching cat). In modern language the word 'kite' has been transferred to a different bird, but the roots of the word reveal a whole range of bird names attributed to their calls – names beginning 'ki-', 'kit-' and 'kiw-'.
Named after habit, realm or behaviour
As well as sound, names can be derived from other distinctive features, take woodpeckers for example. Turnstones are named for their habit of flipping stones to hunt for food, weavers for the way they make their nests. The word ‘duck’ is thought to come from the Old English ‘duce’, meaning ‘diver’ and 'cormorant' from the Medieval Latin 'corvus marinus' (sea raven). 'Sparrow' comes from an Anglo Saxon word for meaning flutterer, while 'starling' in the same language means 'little star' – perhaps for the star shape of the bird in the sky. 'Hawk' likewise can be connected to the Anglo Saxon 'have' meaning seizing or grasping. 'Chaffinch' is thought to come from Old English and references the bird's habit of foraging around barns picking seeds from the chaff.
Named after a person
Some species are named after the person who discovered them. This is true of Montagu’s harrier and Cetti’s warbler. The Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco, a colourful bird found in Ethiopia, was first found in the 1890s in the luggage of an Italian aristocrat, who had been recently trampled to death by an elephant (source). Some names don't refer to one specific person. The word 'robin' is thought to have its origins in 'Robert', which can mean either 'winner over all' or 'bright and famous', while 'magpie' contains the fond 'Maggie', nickname for 'Margaret'.
Ruspoli's turaco was named after the Italian aristocrat who first discovered it. Photo: public domain
Named for humans
Some bird names come from the relationship that species has with humans. 'Peregrine’ comes from the Latin 'peregrinus' meaning foreign. The literal translation of the Latin taxonomic name is 'pilgrim falcon', which is a reference to the birds being captured for falconry fully grown while on migration rather than being taken from the nest.
Named in a muddle
There are, however, some names that came from more obscure origins. The English name for the puffin is thought to come from the word ‘puffed’ and is in reference to the fat nestlings of the Manx shearwater. The two species were confused, and so the term ‘puffin’ applied to the wrong bird. Confusion is a factor in many bird names. The albatross was mixed up with alcatras, a frigate bird of similar appearance, and the turkey confused with the guinea fowl, which was transported to Europe from Africa via Turkey.
There are some instances where we simply don’t know where a name came from: the French word 'grebe' is from an unknown origin, and barnacle goose mixed up in confusion with the brent. The word ‘penguin’ is one of the most hotly contested. Thought to be derived from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning ‘white head’ this name was given to the now extinct great auk but, once again, people got confused and sailors who first saw penguins mistook them for auks.
I gathered all my etymological research from oxforddictionaries.com, lauraerickson.com and Word Origins... And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone by Anatoly Liberman. In this book, Liberman says: historical linguistics is an area for specialists, and specialists seldom agree on anything." This seems particularly true of etymology, where I found many conflicting ideas on the roots of names. I have tried to offer the most commonly held origins in this blog, but if you know of any alternative name meanings, or have any great examples to add, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org