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 the maggoty-pie or maggot-the-pie, of which magpie is probably a shortening. Here, maggot, or later mag, is an obsolete pet-form of the female forenames Margery and Margaret. The second element, pie, derives from Latin pica, itself meaning ‘magpie’. It is also related to picus, which is the Latin name for the green woodpecker.
It is possible that picus also gave us the other pie, 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 the alcatras, a frigate bird of similar appearance with which the oceanic bird was confused.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the alteration of the first syllable alca occurred by folk-etymological association with classical Latin albus ‘white’ in reference to the predominant colour of the plumage of many species of albatross.
The origin of the word penguin is still a matter of debate among etymologists. It is probably derived from a Welsh phrase pen 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 with the Guinea-fowl, a bird native to Africa, which was imported to England through Turkey in the 16th century.
Gulls are admittedly not everyone’s favourite type of bird, and they have certainly caused their fair share of controversy in the past. But how did those seabirds get their name?
Gull appears to be a word of Celtic origin, related to Welsh gŵylan, Breton gouelan, and also Irish faoileán, all meaning ‘gull’.