A rose by any other name ...

There is a rhyming riddle from Northern Ireland that goes ...

A rose by any other name ...

here is a rhyming riddle from Northern Ireland that goes ...

The cuckoo and the gowk,

The laverock and the lark,

The heather bleat and mire snipe,

How many birds is that?”

The answer is three --- the cuckoo, the skylark and the snipe. The other names are English synonyms, either dialect names or obsolete ones. The confusion caused by having more than one name for the same bird is, of course, why scientific names exist, usually in some form of Latin but sometimes incorporating Greek, the universal languages of educated people in times past.

But although the English names may sometimes cause confusion many of them are charming and descriptive. The obsolete name ‘white arse’ is far more descriptive of the little white-rumped migrant than the name ‘wheatear’, for example.

There are some others I like. The corn bunting is now sadly extinct as an Irish breeding species but I remember these plump little brown birds from days gone by and the alternative name of ‘corn dumpling’ is entirely suitable. And when I was growing up in east Munster hooded crows were always called ‘scald crows’ and starlings were ‘stares’.

Other obsolete names I have come across are ‘snowflake’ for a snow bunting and ‘bitter burn’ for another bird, the bittern, which hasn’t bred here for more than 150 years. This one sounds to me like the sort of confusion that arises when an illiterate person learns a bird’s name by ear.

Even commonly used bird names often reveal interesting origins. A pied wagtail is a black and white bird that wags its tail a lot – pied meaning black and white, as in a piebald horse. I believe the name magpie has a similar origin, a black and white bird called Mag, a shortening of Margaret or Marguerite and once used to describe a woman who chattered a lot. But etymologists tend to disagree connecting the bird to edible pies.

The prefix ‘jack’ means something small. A jack snipe is a small species of snipe, a jack knife is a small, folding, pocket knife and a jackdaw is a small daw. But what is a daw? The name is similar in all Germanic languages and I believe it is simply a phonetic description of the birds greeting call, though, again, not all the experts agree. The jackdaw’s close relation, the chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) is named after its call.

Linnaeus, the father of scientific nomenclature, didn’t restrict himself to classical sources. Sometimes he used the sound a bird made when he was naming it. That’s why the corncrake is Crex crex and probably why the magpie is Pica pica. And I think, for what its worth, the obsolete ‘throstle’ is a more musical name for a song thrush.

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