A large number of birds received their names through the imitation of their cries. The cuckoo is an obvious example of such an onomatopoeic naming, and so are the owl, the cockatiel, and many more. Some bird names, however, have a more intriguing linguistic history.
The magpie was earlier known as themaggoty-pieormaggot-the-pie, of whichmagpieis probably a shortening. Here,maggot, or latermag, is an obsolete pet-form of the female forenamesMargeryandMargaret. The second element,pie, derives from Latinpica, itself meaning ‘magpie’. It is also related topicus, which is the Latin name for the green woodpecker.
It is possible thatpicusalso gave us the otherpie, as in the baked pastry dish, perhaps alluding to the magpie’s habit of collecting random objects in comparison to a pie’s various ingredients.
The albatross received its name from thealcatras, a frigate bird of similar appearance with which the oceanic bird was confused.
According to theOxford English Dictionary(OED), the alteration of the first syllablealca occurred by folk-etymological association with classical Latinalbus‘white’ in reference to the predominant colour of the plumage of many species of albatross.
The origin of the wordpenguinis still a matter of debate among etymologists. It is probably derived from a Welsh phrasepen gwyn, meaning ‘white head’.
Apparently, the name was first given to a different bird, the now extinct Great Auk, which closely resembled the penguin in its appearance. It is assumed that the British sailors who first discovered the penguins mistook them for Great Auks and applied their name to the unfamiliar birds.
Keeping with the theme of people confusing one bird for another, the American turkey doesn’t actually originate from Turkey, but from Mexico. It was, however, first confused withthe Guinea-fowl, a bird native to Africa, which was imported to England through Turkey in the 16thcentury.
Gulls are admittedly not everyone’s favourite type of bird, and they have certainlycaused their fair share of controversyin the past. But how did those seabirds get their name?
Gullappears to be a word of Celtic origin, related to Welshgylan, Bretongouelan, and also Irishfaoileán, all meaning ‘gull’.