“the heron has had more than 30 local names in Britain, including hegrie (Shetland), moll hern (Midlands), frank (from the bird’s call – Suffolk), longie crane (Pembroke). Dandelion has at least 50, including clocks and watches, conquer more, devil’s milk plant (from its white latex), four o’clock, golden suns, lion’s teeth, piss-a-bed (the leaves are a renowned diuretic), priest’s crown, wet-weed, wishes.”
– Richard Mabey
There is a wonderful, poetic beauty in many folk names that our scientific or proper names miss. Folk names also give us a glimpse into history, into how the people who named them saw the world.
“Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical.”
There are in fact so many wonderful names that Michel Desfayes, in his A Thesaurus of Bird Names, lists more than 100,000 European folk names. And that is for birds alone. And taking my lead from Desfayes, today I will just be looking at birds.
The world we enter when we look back at names is one with a more intimate connection to the world, to other living beings and through those names, we can see respect, reverence and frustration. Through names, we see species through the eyes of our ancestors.
Birds are often named for their song, their habitat or their appearance, both the colloquial name and the more official names. The latter category also often includes birds which are named after a specific person, such as Montagu’s harrier.
To explore folk names, let’s start with the Stonechat. They have a myriad of names, many include reference to where the bird is found, some to it’s voice, some to appearance, others to it’s behaviour. The Stonechat is associated with gorse and we find this reflected in folk names such as gorse-bird, gorse-linnet, gorse-chat and gorse-jack.
If we look to the Willow Warbler, we find 31 names containing nest references eg grass wren, ground-oven, ground featherpoke. In terms of names which refer to their song, we have sweet-billy with sweet suggesting their ‘soo-weet’ call. Other names include diminutive terms such as the Irish name sally-wren with wren often used in species which are not wrens, but rather to indicate a small bird, in the same way that the suffix -ling is often used.
“sally-wren is special in combining both a female name, a reference to the habitat or context of willow (as in the various references to Sally or Salley Gardens in Northern Ireland and Ireland, respectively, and of course Salix – the willow), and to sallying (a word from a French root), the behaviour of flaying out after and insect and returning to the same perch or a nearby one.”
– Andrew Gosler, British Wildlife, August 2019
We have seen the use of human names in sally-wren, and I’m sure you are familiar with jenny-wren, but other names for the Wren include kitty-wren, katie-wren, jenny-squit, joey-cutty and kitty-tope. For the Dunnock, we have hedge-betty and billy hedge-sparrow. For the Great Tit, we have tommy-tit and so on. Gosler states that this is a ‘significant indicator of the nature of human relationships with these birds in the past’. Pre 1950ish, calling someone by their first name was a sign of familiarity and would be used for close friends and family members, as well as children. Using human names for birds makes them easier to remember as they are already familiar words and makes the birds seem like an extension of the family and thus part of the circle of those we care for.
As well as references to general habitat, some birds have folk names that refer to where they build their nests, information which would have been very helpful for egg collectors – something we have a lot less need to know these days. Another wonderful example that illustrates the interconnection between human lives and birds comes from the Corn Bunting whose eggs have markings like a child’s scrawl and who has names such as scribble bunting, scribbling school master and writing master.
Names matter, not only because they provide information, but also because they are not necessarily neutral. For example, Dunnocks were once Hedge-sparrows but sparrows have been a bit of a pest over human history. In 1951, Max Nicholson called for name changes for a few birds, including the Dunnock:
“Dunnocks do no harm to us, but haqve in return been exposed to the undeserved insult and injury of being miscalled hedge-sparrows by people too stupid to see the absurdity of such a name.”
We can also turn to names to think about changing human culture and technology. For example, many folk names refer to the sound of a bird through onomatopoeia because you can often hear but not see a bird. Additionally, specific features were harder to identify before telescopes and binoculars were readily available.
Whilst some bird songs lend themselves well to onomatopoeic names, others have melodies that are more complicated and are harder to condense into a human word or two. This is why we have the cuckoo and chiffchaff, but don’t for example refer to the nightingale onomatopoeically.
When it comes to appearance, over 130 official British bird names refer to colour, with red and black being the most prominent; redstart, red grouse, redwing, blackbird, blackcap… This might sound a sensible way of naming but it doesn’t allow for sex differences… the female blackbird being brown is an obvious example of this but there are others.
Whilst this is all very interesting, you may be wondering whether it matters? Well, apparently research suggests that children can learn about nature when it is culturally contextualised. Gosler refers to teaching students about the folk name yaffle for the Green Woodpecker, named for its call, and the success that this has as it ‘can catch in the mind more readily’ that the official name.
None of this is to say that folk names are superior to official names, or vice versa, but to highlight that both that their own function and their own virtues. Scientific names allow for precise communication, including that across language barriers and over different geographic areas, without confusion.
“They are a universal currency across cultures and languages, providing consistent names for both familiar organisms and those organisms that neither have a common name nor ever will. Without Latin names, chaos would rule the science of biology”
– John Wright
As a bit of an aside, if you happen to know Latin or Greek, you can take a stab at working out what species is being referred to by a scientific name. For example, take Somateria mollissima aka the eider duck. We have soma meaning body, erion for wool, mollis is soft and issima as a word ending means very. So, it is the ‘thing with very soft body wool’! Whilst translating scientific names can be a fun puzzle resulting in, sometimes, poetic descriptions, they aren’t easy to remember, recall or even spell…
Whilst referring to plants, this extract from an article highlights an important point about the closeness of folk names in comparison to scientific names:
“Scientific terms in Greek and Latin, often disconnected from a local environment, aren’t always informative to the average person. Poison oak, for example, is a name that asks you beware of a plant with oak-like leaves. These folk names may often contain valuable descriptive knowledge that, given the vast variety of plants not yet fully classified, may not be available anywhere else but from the local people who live in that environment.“
– How Language and Climate Change Connect
Of course, nothing in language is static, and we can create our own traditions, especially if doing so helps us connect with the world around us more intimately. Knowing the ‘correct’ name is not always important. For inspiration, you can turn to A. F. Harold’s poem ‘Among The Ornithologists’:
“This one I’ll call the Fifth Day of Christmas Bird for its eye’s gold ring,
Here’s the Nervous Bugger who’s always a step ahead, twittering…
… A Single Drop of Blood in the Darkest Night Bird paddles out of a dream…”
(I couldn’t find a link to the full poem, so you’ve just got an extract. It’s found in Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss)
- Richard Mabey on the art of giving species their common names
- Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, by Stephen Moss
- What’s in a name? Andrew Gosler, British Wildlife, August 2019
- Blackcap, redstart, yellowhammer: what’s in a bird’s name?
- Ethno-ornithology World Atlas
- The Naming of the Shrew, by John Wright