I recently purchased a book called “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest A. Choate. I had to buy a used copy as the book is out of print, the one that I got was from the first printing in 1973. The book describes the Common Names for birds as well as the Scientific Names. It tells you what the name means and how the word came about.
English as a language is a blend of several languages, including Latin and French, and it is constantly evolving. Words and the English language have always fascinated me, one of my favorite classes in college was the course I took on linguistics. In that class we explored the roots of words and what language words came from. The oldest words in the English language are Anglo-Saxon and that language has Germanic roots. Then when the Roman empire came into existence and their expansion into northern Europe came about around 43 AD, some of their words started being used, many of the Latin words had Greek origins. Later when the French invaded England around 1100 AD, French words made their way into the English language. Thus there are many words in existence today that have Latin and French roots.
American English is a major dialect of the mother tongue. It is constantly adding new words and dropping old ones. And trying to spell the mish-mash of words coming from all those different origins is a challenge. English as a written language is not phonetically functional, meaning the spelling doesn’t necessarily follow the pronunciation, just ask any 5th grader as they prepare for a spelling bee.
Anyhow, this book has many little tales to tell. An example is the name for the bird that we call the Cormorant. That word has French origins: cormoran, which in turn can be broken down into the Latin origins: corvus, “crow” and marinus “pertaining to the sea”. So I guess we could say that the Cormorant is the Crow of the Sea, or Sea Crow. Another interesting name is the Merganser. It has it’s roots in the Latin language and can be broken down as mergus, “a diver” and anser, “a goose”, hence “diving goose”.
The book describes the Common names for birds and also has anecdotal stories about some of the birds. One that interested me was the story about the Gray Jay. So many legends surround this bird, I am finding new ones all the time. This book talks about the Camp Robber and why the name was used by the hunters, trappers, and the backwoodsman of the north. Here’s an excerpt from the book: “They do great damage to the trappers by stealing the bait from traps set for martins and minks and by eating the trapped game: They will sit quietly and see you build a trap and bait it, and then, almost before your back is turned, you hear their hateful “ca-ca-ca” as they glide down and peer into it”.
I may have created a monster by buying this book, it makes a great armchair read! There will be many more word explorations and tales from this book in the coming weeks.