Onomatopoeia in American Bird Names

Birds names given by the earliest cultures that encountered them were often imitations of their songs/calls. What may be surprising is how many of those names have stood the test of time! For instance, Native cultures of Central America named the “chachalaca” for its calls. Unsurprisingly though, many of our North American English common names come from European cultures who had encountered the bird (or something like it) in Europe and named it there.

Ancient (before 1700)

Almost all of the definitions are directly copied from the numbered source following the definition (corresponding to the bibliography at the end), hence the quotation marks. Most of the etymological sources come from Online Etymology Dictionary (1) and were queried simply by typing the word into the search engine. Note that I also carried over their notation (i.e. the same use/meaning of the * also defined at the end of the post). Sub-bullets are bird names related to or deriving from the same root word.

  • booby – “…probably from Latin balbus ‘stammering,’ from an imitative root” (1)
  • goose – “…[Proto-Indo-European] *ghans (source also of Sanskrit hamsah (masc.), hansi (fem.), ‘goose, swan;’ Greek khen; Latin anser; Polish gęś ‘goose;’ Lithuanian zasis ‘goose;’ Old Irish geiss “swan”), probably imitative of its honking.” (1) Because of the mentioned relation in this definition, I include…
    • swan (1)
  • garganey (2)
  • heron – “…perhaps from a common [Indo-European] root imitative of its cry (compare Old Church Slavonic kriku ‘cry, scream,’ Lithuanian kryksti ‘to shriek,’ Welsh cregyra ‘heron,’ Latin graculus ‘jackdaw, crow’)” (1)
    • egret – “…diminutive of aigron ‘heron'” (1)
    • crane – “…cognates: Greek geranos, Latin grus, Welsh garan, Lithuanian garnys ‘heron, stork.’ Thus the name is perhaps an echo of its cry in ancient ears.” (1)
    • crow – “Old English crawe, imitative of bird’s cry.” (1) (There seems to be some suggestion that “sparrow” could be related to this word too.)
    • bittern
    • gannet
    • grouse
  • pigeon – “…from pipire ‘to peep, chirp,’ of imitative origin.” (1)
    • wigeon (2)
  • kite – “…Old English cyta, probably imitative of its cry” (1)
  • quail – “…from Old French quaille (Modern French caille), perhaps via Medieval Latin quaccula (source also of Provençal calha, Italian quaglia, Old Spanish coalla), or directly from a Germanic source (compare Dutch kwakkel, Old High German quahtala ‘quail,’ German Wachtel, Old English wihtel), imitative of the bird’s cry.” (1)
  • chicken – “…from root *keuk (echoic of the bird’s sound and possibly also the source of the word “cock”…)” (1)
  • kittiwake (2)
  • gull
    • mew – “‘seagull,’ Old English mæw, from Proto-Germanic *maigwis (source also of Old Saxon mew, Frisian meau, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German mewe, Dutch meeuw ‘gull’), imitative of its cry.” (1)
    • guillemot – “Fr., prob. Celt.; Bret. gwelan, gull, and O. Fr. moette, a sea-mew, from Teut.” (3)
  • skua
  • auklet
  • whimbrel
  • curlew – “from Old French courlieu (13c., Modern French courlis), said to be imitative of the bird’s cry but apparently assimilated with corliu” (1)
  • cuckoo – “from Old French cocu “cuckoo,” also “cuckold,” echoic of the male bird’s mating cry” (1)
  • owl – “…imitative of a wail or an owl’s hoot” (1)
  • shrike – “…probably echoic of its cry and related to ‘shriek'” (1)
  • jay – “…probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry” (1)
  • raven –  “…imitative of harsh sounds” (1)
  • finch – “…perhaps imitative of the bird’s note (compare Breton pint ‘chaffinch,’ Russian penka ‘wren’)” (1) Because of that I include…
    • wren (1)
  • siskin – “via Fl or Du < Ger zeischen, dim. of zeizig < Czech čížek, dim. of číž (akin to Pol czyz, Russ čiž), of echoic orig.” (4)

*”not attested in any written source, but has been reconstructed by etymological analysis” (1)

Recent History (1700’s onward)

  • bobwhite
  • willet
  • poorwill
    • chuck-will’s-widow
    • whip-poor-will
  • pewee
  • phoebe
  • kiskadee
  • chickadee
  • veery
  • towhee
  • bobolink
  • pipit
  • grackle

Sources Cited

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php
  2. Google search of the word + “etymology”
  3. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary
  4. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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