Jul 6, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: The Bird is the Word

Let's look at names of birds this week.  

You probably guessed which one we're doing first: mockingbird. The earlier form was mock-bird, so mock + bird.  "Mock" comes from Old French mocquer "deride, jeer." The word mock is of unknown origin, maybe from Vulgar Latin muccare "to blow the nose." It was apparently a derisive gesture. (The word sounds a bit like "mucus," doesn't it?)

Here's a personal favourite: Raven comes from Old English hræfn from ProtoGermanic khrabanaz, from PIE root *ker-, imitative of harsh sounds. (Also he source of Latin crepare "to creak," for example.) You can hear the raven's croak in that, right?

Here's another one: eagle comes from Middle English egle, through Anglo-Norman and Old French from Latin aquila, which might be related to aquilus "blackish, the colour of darkness." Cool, right?

The word bird is an Old English word of uncertain origin, but I did learn where the expression "to flip the bird" comes from. It's slang from the 1860s, originally give the big bird meaning "to hiss at someone like a goose." It was kept alive in vaudeville slang, but the middle finger thing came to play only in 1960s. The gesture is much older though. According to etymonline.com, the anatomy section of a 12th century Latin bestiary in Cambridge describes the middle finger as that "by means of which the pursuit of dishonour in indicated."



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