Home Columns Anantha Narayan Being bird-brained

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    Kingfisher is the beer that made the Mallyas rich. Eagle is the handy Thermos flask you carry to hospitals. Dove is the soap that claims it isn’t a soap. Penguin is the publisher of books you never cared to read. Crane is that paaku thool (betel nut) with that irritating jingle. A top-of-mind-awareness test of bird names is likely to throw up such learned responses from the smartest of city dwellers. That’s how much we know about the winged creatures.
    For a generation obsessed with Angry Birds and avian flu, it’s quite ironical that we can’t tell a crane from a stork, or a falcon from a kite. To cure ourselves of our collective ignorance, let’s go on a wild goose chase to up our bird IQ a few notches.
    What’s common to the cuckoo, the owl, the kookaburra and the cock? If you blinked like a dying tubelight, let’s put you out of your agony by pointing out that these birds are named after the distinctive sounds they make. Owl, for instance, is derived from the Sanskrit ‘ulluka’, which in turn flows from the ululating call it makes. I’d add the Indian crow and the New Zealand kiwi to the list.
    Appearances and plumage also play a role in the nomenclature. The flame-like orangish red colour of the feathers give the flamingo (from Spanish ‘flamengo’) its flamboyant label. Eagle comes from the Latin ‘gquila’ and it means ‘water-coloured’ or dark-hued bird. Along the same lines, penguin draws its roots from ‘pen gwyn’ which implies ‘white head’ in Welsh.
    Sometimes misnomers have resulted in ludicrous choices. America’s favourite thanksgiving bird, the turkey, is actually not from Turkey. It’s a native species often confused with the guinea fowl, which was introduced to Europe from the Mediterranean country. The resulting confusion gave rise to turkey, which incidentally is referred to in Turkey as ‘Hindi’ because it’s thought to have been imported from India. The albatross has a similar tale. In the early days, it was mixed up with the pelican and was, hence, christened from the Spanish word ‘alcatruz’ (meaning water carrier).
    Other common birds have rather pedestrian origins. The German word for ‘singer’ gave rise to swan. Rooster was whipped up when ‘cock’ was found to be unparliamentary. Pigeon is literally ‘young chirping bird’. And many think ‘dove’ is related to the past tense of ‘dive’ in reference to its flight. Hope that left you happy as a lark.

     

    Anantha Narayan

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