Etymology Bubble Map

I made this mind map in reverse, such that the central yellow bubble is my main topic of inquiry and the tangential bubbles (grading to “blue”) are more general. This bubble map represents the directions studying this topic has taken me. Please connect me with experts in these fields!


Indigenous Bird Naming

As I’ve been researching Indigenous bird names from what is currently known as North America, I’ve also been reading a book from a very different part of the world: Mount Bosavi, Papua New Guinea (Feld, 1991). It’s a musicology text, written by an ethno-musicologist that embedded with the Kaluli. He speaks to how well they know the birds around them, and how prominently bird song plays into not only the perception of the birds themselves, but many aspects of their culture. The deep knowledge of bird song among the Kaluli people is what has grabbed my attention about this text, and has either reshaped or confirmed my thoughts about how our ancestors may have interacted with their soundscape.

I was surprised, though, to find a contrast in our recent travels. At the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, there’s a wonderful slideshow of Arikari names for birds (and their etymology; as you can imagine, I was stoked). What’s really interesting to me, as a landscape ecologist (and budding soundscape enthusiast), is that perhaps cultural perception of birds is landscape-dependent. It makes sense that in a tropical forest, where you may not see many birds, you’d be more likely to cue in on and refer to sounds. What struck me though is that this even extended to some of the most elaborate large birds we have on this planet: the birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae)! If there’s a bird family you’d describe by appearance, I’d think it would be that one!

Kaluli categorize and think about routine experiences of birds most often and most thoroughly in terms of the sounds they hear in the forest and at the village edges…In the bush or at the village edge, they point out birds by saying ‘Listen,…do you hear X?’ then an interpretation is made, such as, ‘It says its name.’ When asked direct questions that include the name of the bird, the response ‘It sounds like X’ is universally presented by Kaluli before any sort of ‘It looks like X’ statement. (Feld, 1991, pp. 71-72)

By contrast, the birds of the Great Plains often had names that referenced their appearance (or in some cases, seasonality)! I have to admit that was the opposite of what I expected, since they are often hard to see and identify visually. Instead, grassland birds have songs that carry far over the open landscape. It leads me to a whole new suite of questions: is “vegetation getting in the way of visual cues” really the driver between whether humans rely on sound or sight?

Adaptation to life in a forest environment develops acute spatial skills for audition, and Kaluli use these to advantage over vision. In my experience, bird calls and bird life constituted the most accessible domain from which many of the experiential aspects of this perceptual system were linguistically marked.” (Feld, 1991, p. 62)

Is it hard to link up song sometimes with individual bird in grasslands? For example, we heard songs we were able to identify with the aid of learning tools, but the songs carried from afar and we had no hope of seeing the individual bird making them. Are visual cues, then, what you would use to identify grassland birds?

Similarities of note: in both cultures, “small birds” often were lumped into groups, no matter how pretty and distinctive their songs (or even appearance) might be. Related, hunting was perhaps the most interaction with birds. I was surprised again to find that of the few Arikari words that seemed to reference sound in the species name, they were game birds, and birds you might otherwise describe by visual features (e.g. prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse). Perhaps similarly, these birds also seem to be most commonly featured in ceremonial dancing. Did sound become more important when it indicated a food source you would have to sneak up on to hunt?

I couldn’t have been more excited to stumble upon an etymology source for Indigenous bird names, but as you can see, it (delightfully) left me with more new questions than answers! ūüôā

Literature Cited

Feld, Steven. “To you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.”¬†Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed.,¬†University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Indigenous Bird Names

This is going to be a running list: I’ve been looking for etymological origins of Indigenous names (which as you can imagine is pretty hard to find, so any leads on resources are very much appreciated). I’m collecting Indigenous names for birds that are onomatopoeic (for languages from what the continent now known as North America). I start with those that are the most familiar to most of my readers, which are probably English-speaking North Americans. These are now also common English names (or parts thereof) of North American birds.

  • chachalaca
  • caracara
  • sora?

Then, there are Indigenous transliterated words for species. In some cases I also included names based on bird song/sound, that weren’t explicitly onomatopoeic (but likely by extension have some sort of onomatopoeic root).

  • Chickadee – onomatopoeia
    • Cherokee “Tsigili‚Äôi”
    • Arikara “Ň°kipipi”
  • American robin – names related to the call
    • Cree “peyetchew”
    • Ojibwa “opitcki”
    • Nipissing “pipitshi”
  • bald eagle – “the barker”
    • “migisi” (Ojibwe)
    • “mikisiw” (Cree)
  • pileated woodpecker
    • “meme” (Ojibwe & Nipissing) – seemed imitative
  • mourning dove (Arikara “little thunder”)
  • ruffed grouse (Arikara name references that it’s startling, probably meaning from the abrupt flush)
  • mallard
    • Cree as “sisib”
    • Ojibwa as “shiship”
  • sharp-tailed grouse
    • Arikara “Ň°iy√≥” (echoic of “Shoo!”)
      • “Ň°iy√≥Ň°a” (pheasant) derives from this
      • “Ň°iy√≥ka” (greater prairie chicken)
  • brown thrasher
    • Arikara “ńćheh√ļpaglagla g√≠” (means “to-chatter-with-one’s-own-teeth brown”)
      • catbird is similar but with “gray”
  • turkey
    • “huexolotl” (Nahuatl)¬†An English traveler in 1860 thought the word was echoic of its gobbling song. (Balderston & Schwartz 2012)


Balderston, Daniel, and Marcy E. Schwartz, eds. Voice-overs: translation and Latin American literature. SUNY Press, 2012.

Chamberlain, Alexander F. “Significations of Certain Algonquian Animal Names.”¬†American Anthropologist¬†3.4 (1901): 669-683.

Prince, J. Dyneley. ‚ÄúAn Ancient New Jersey Indian Jargon.‚Ä̬†American Anthropologist, vol. 14, no. 3, 1912, pp. 508‚Äď524.¬† (23. duck)

Anthropology & Ornithology

It’s interesting to me that so many ancient cultures named birds by their sound, and I think it’s related to why birds are so relatively easy to sample today: they make noise, and somewhat predictably! When we do point counts, most species are detected aurally. So, in the soundscape, it would have made sense for ancient people to try to mimic the sound when describing what’s around them to others, or discuss the source of their curiosity.

Recognition of birds by sound is immediate in everyday situations, spontaneously available, and, most importantly, a significant feature of the conversations Kaluli have among themselves. Evidence for dominance of the routinely shared character of sound over image categories is manifest in a number of different ways. When presented with pictures or specimens out of context, Kaluli tend first to think of and imitate the sound, then to say the name of the bird. (Feld, 1991, p. 71-72)

After all, in many cases you may not see the bird, but more likely you’d hear it. An onomatopoeic name for a bird was probably in many cases a more reliable handle to stoke recognition than a visual description, because probably more people heard the bird regularly than necessarily saw it. Add on to that the lack of optics to zoom in on a bird that might be hiding high up! More interestingly to me, there’s evidence in at least some cultures that extended to folk taxonomy, in that birds were grouped in relatedness by sound. Feld noted, “What emerged was a sense of how bird taxonomy intersects with more fundamental daily realities, and most significantly, with sound as a symbolic system.” (1991)

What struck me, though, was how many ancient roots of names reference birds we can see well with the naked eye (e.g. heron), and thus is somewhat the impetus for this blog post. Certainly plenty of names reference physical characteristics, but the contrast interested me between how I perceive and recognize a bird like an egret. I’ve known what that was since I was a child, recognize it visually, and never knew what it sounded like until I took ornithology lab and listened to a recording CD. Yet, its name derives from a sound. To be fair, and non-trivially to this post, I also had the aid of visuals (i.e. a bird guide) before I saw one and recognized it, matching it to a picture and thus a name. How would I have perceived it differently encountering it in the wild sans binoculars, with an interest in describing it to people who may or may not have seen it? Also, that type of observation would have likely been longer, maybe allowing more time for it to vocalize, and thus have the vocalization be a part of my observational experience. For what it’s worth, a bird like a great blue heron has a memorable and surprising call, if you’ve never heard it. I may have been surprised by the quality of the sound, and thus want to imitate it.

On that note, perhaps also the root is less direct or utilitarian. Back in 2010, I remember a conversation with my field tech spurred by our bored mimicry of bird sounds around us. We knew the calls and the species attached, but that didn’t stop of us from enjoying trying to make the sounds ourselves. He commented that it’s “human nature” to try to mimic environmental sounds, and I thought that was interesting. Maybe ancient onomatopoeic names sprung from a mix of entertainment, curiosity and the need for mnemonic regarding the surrounding environment.

Birds meant a lot of things to ancient cultures, just as they do to us today: food, adornment, phenology, religious symbology, mythology/lore, art, aesthetic, etc. So, the soundscape could indicate a variety of things, from basic needs met to the presence of e.g. a spirit. In that sense, I think it would do us (meaning birders) well to sort of deconstruct our typical understanding of the avian soundscape: we listen for birds to identify them. While many ancient cultures indeed mapped vocalizations to species (at least eventually), I wonder how important it was that a sound indicated the presence of a certain species (i.e. not a sought-after game species), as opposed to a changing of the seasons.

To understand how Kaluli hear this world you have to get a handle on what they call dulugu ganalan, or ‘lift-up-over sounding.’ This refers to the fact that there are no single sounds in the rain forest. Everything is mixed into an interlocking soundscape. The rainforest is like a world of coordinated sound clocks, an intersection of millions of simultaneous cycles all refusing to ever start or stop at the same point. ‘Lift-up-over sounding’ means that the Kaluli hear their rain forest world as overlapping, dense, layered. (Feld, 1990)

Many naturalists are likewise well aware of certain bird songs as phenological indicators, not only meaning the arrival of migrants but perhaps changes in resident behavior. The concept I’m attempting to describe, and thus questions I’m trying to form are whether the presence of a bird vocalization was more important, or noticed a.) than in our modern western cultural repertoire and b.) than the need for visual linkage to the source of the sound. I think there’s a strong case for the former: while e.g. North American people of western culture today often recognize raucous, simple, common or interesting bird vocalizations, there would have been more survival incentive (and more cultural reference) for ancient people to recognize a wider suite of bird vocalizations.

Virtually all Kaluli men can sit down in front of a tape recorder and imitate the sounds of at least one hundred birds, but few can provide visual descriptive information on nearly that many. When one hears a bird, and they are by far more often heard than seen in Bosavi, one makes a statement that recognizes the bird through focusing on the sound, attaching the sound to a taxon (the two are often identical, as many taxa are formed from bird call onomatopoeia), and attaching an appropriate cultural attribution to the sound. (Feld, 1991, p. 72)

I remember thinking in high school “I can’t imagine how hard it would be to learn bird calls/songs.” To be fair, I also never took up musical hobbies, so there was very little I knew about distinguishing and describing sounds that couldn’t be turned into words (besides vocal mimicry, which brings this post full circle). Am I especially ill-adept, or would many of my peers agree before trying to learn bird sounds? I think it’s possible we’ve just become disconnected from natural soundscapes and the need to know about them, through both physical walls and what now commands our attention.

Literature Cited

Feld, S. (1990). [Liner notes]. In Voices of the Rainforest [CD]. Bosavi: 360 Productions.

Feld, Steven. “To you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.”¬†Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed.,¬†University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Ecomusicology & Bird Song Mnemonics

Thanks to a conversation with my friend, Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, over Twitter, I learned that there’s an entire field of study that is poised to look formally into some of the concepts that have been nebulously floating about in my mind about how we process bird songs. Most recently, I’ve been interested in mnemonics, which are commonly used to describe and help people remember bird songs. There are common ones (some so common and relatively recent they comprise the modern English common names of some of our bird species) and ones that people make up in the field as they go. I always loved when my friends who were learning bird song would make up mnemonics as we were hiking, and I still wish I’d written them down somewhere back when! I experienced the same thing when I taught forestry summer camp, and students would come up with mnemonics when they first paid attention to a particular species song.

Mnemonics are commonly used because they generally work so well for us. My favorite resource to aurally learn bird song, Peterson Birding by Ear, relies heavily on mnemonic devices. There are mnemonics that are almost universally taught (e.g. “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” for white-throated sparrow, though even as I type that, there’s another very common one for that species that comes to mind). Even some that didn’t make their way to the current commonly used name for a given species are in our public American consciousness (e.g. “caw, caw” for the American crow; notice I said recent because the name “crow” probably did originate from a very old onomatopoeia). So, I’m interested in why some of these mnemonics became so popular, and why they were associated with particular sounds in our linguistic systems.

It’s unsurprising (yet no less nifty, in my opinion) that each spoken language or perhaps dialect has their own onomatopoeic representations of the same sound; for example, take the many representations of dogs barking in different languages (with the acknowledgement that different breeds prevalent in different areas do produce differing sounds, too). Thus, it begs the question of how/why certain syllables enter onomatopoeic representation, when as the previous linked list shows via transliteration, often the same basic sounds are available to a given language. Assuming that most of my readers are English-speaking, consider our onomatopoeia for a dog bark (“bow wow”) vs. the transliterated barks on the list.

Dr. Whitney introduced me to the works of a colleague of her husband, Dr. Alexandra Hui, via a link to her faculty page and I was excited to read some of the titles of her presentations in her CV (examples listed in the works cited); these are presentations I wish I could have listened in on, for sure! I look forward to learning more about the field of ecomusicology, and particularly how it relates to the etymology of our bird names and common mnemonics that persist in teaching today.

Works Cited

  1. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, Vanderbilt University, ‚ÄúFrom Vogelfl√∂te to wichity wichity wichity: Standardizing the sounds of nature in the first decades of the twentieth century,‚ÄĚ Nashville, TN, February 3, 2016.
  2. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Georgia Institute of Technology, ‚ÄúListening to Nature: Representing bird song, 1885-1945,‚ÄĚ Atlanta, GA, September 14, 2015.
  3. Hui, Alexandra. ‚ÄúFrom Silence to Fee-bee fee-bee fee-b-be-be: the place of nature in the sonic environment, 1948-1969,‚ÄĚ presented at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, April 3-7, 2013.

Onomatopoeia in American Bird Names

Birds names given by the earliest cultures that encountered them were often imitations of their songs/calls. What may be surprising is how many of those names have stood the test of time! For instance, Native cultures of Central America named the “chachalaca” for its calls. Unsurprisingly though, many of our North American English common names come from European cultures who had encountered the bird (or something like it) in Europe and named it there.

Ancient (before 1700)

Almost all of the definitions are directly copied from the numbered source following the definition (corresponding to the bibliography at the end), hence the quotation marks. Most of the etymological sources come from Online Etymology Dictionary (1) and were queried simply by typing the word into the search engine. Note that I also carried over their notation (i.e. the same use/meaning of the * also defined at the end of the post). Sub-bullets are bird names related to or deriving from the same root word.

  • booby – “…probably from Latin¬†balbus¬†‘stammering,’ from an imitative root” (1)
  • goose – “…[Proto-Indo-European]¬†*ghans¬†(source also of Sanskrit¬†hamsah¬†(masc.),¬†hansi¬†(fem.), ‘goose, swan;’ Greek¬†khen; Latin¬†anser; Polish¬†gńôŇõ¬†‘goose;’ Lithuanian¬†zasis¬†‘goose;’ Old Irish¬†geiss¬†“swan”), probably imitative of its honking.” (1) Because of the mentioned relation in this definition, I include…
    • swan¬†(1)
  • garganey (2)
  • heron – “…perhaps from a common [Indo-European] root imitative of its cry (compare Old Church Slavonic¬†kriku¬†‘cry, scream,’ Lithuanian¬†kryksti¬†‘to shriek,’ Welsh¬†cregyra¬†‘heron,’ Latin¬†graculus¬†‘jackdaw, crow’)” (1)
    • egret – “…diminutive of¬†aigron¬†‘heron'” (1)
    • crane – “…cognates: Greek¬†geranos, Latin¬†grus, Welsh¬†garan, Lithuanian¬†garnys¬†‘heron, stork.’ Thus the name is perhaps an echo of its cry in ancient ears.” (1)
    • crow – “Old English¬†crawe, imitative of bird’s cry.” (1) (There seems to be some suggestion that “sparrow” could be related to this word too.)
    • bittern
    • gannet
    • grouse
  • pigeon – “…from¬†pipire¬†‘to peep, chirp,’ of imitative origin.” (1)
    • wigeon (2)
  • kite – “…Old English¬†cyta, probably imitative of its cry” (1)
  • quail – “…from Old French¬†quaille¬†(Modern French¬†caille), perhaps via Medieval Latin¬†quaccula¬†(source also of Proven√ßal¬†calha, Italian¬†quaglia, Old Spanish¬†coalla), or directly from a Germanic source (compare Dutch¬†kwakkel, Old High German¬†quahtala¬†‘quail,’ German¬†Wachtel, Old English¬†wihtel), imitative of the bird’s cry.” (1)
  • chicken – “…from root¬†*keuk¬†(echoic of the bird’s sound and possibly also the source of the word “cock”…)” (1)
  • kittiwake (2)
  • gull
    • mew – “‘seagull,’ Old English¬†m√¶w, from Proto-Germanic¬†*maigwis¬†(source also of Old Saxon¬†mew, Frisian¬†meau, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German¬†mewe, Dutch¬†meeuw¬†‘gull’), imitative of its cry.” (1)
    • guillemot¬†– “Fr., prob. Celt.; Bret.¬†gwelan, gull, and O. Fr.¬†moette, a sea-mew, from Teut.” (3)
  • skua
  • auklet
  • whimbrel
  • curlew¬†– “from Old French¬†courlieu¬†(13c., Modern French¬†courlis), said to be imitative of the bird’s cry but apparently assimilated with¬†corliu” (1)
  • cuckoo – “from Old French¬†cocu¬†“cuckoo,” also “cuckold,” echoic of the male bird’s mating cry” (1)
  • owl – “…imitative of a wail or an owl’s hoot” (1)
  • shrike – “…probably echoic of its cry and related to ‘shriek'” (1)
  • jay – “…probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry” (1)
  • raven –¬†¬†“…imitative of harsh sounds” (1)
  • finch – “…perhaps imitative of the bird’s note (compare Breton¬†pint¬†‘chaffinch,’ Russian¬†penka¬†‘wren’)” (1) Because of that I include…
    • wren¬†(1)
  • siskin – “via Fl or Du < Ger¬†zeischen, dim. of¬†zeizig¬†< Czech¬†ńć√≠Ňĺek, dim. of¬†ńć√≠Ň嬆(akin to Pol¬†czyz, Russ¬†ńćiŇĺ), of echoic orig.” (4)

*”not attested in any written source, but has been reconstructed by etymological analysis” (1)

Recent History (1700’s onward)

  • bobwhite
  • willet
  • poorwill
    • chuck-will’s-widow
    • whip-poor-will
  • pewee
  • phoebe
  • kiskadee
  • chickadee
  • veery
  • towhee
  • bobolink
  • pipit
  • grackle

Sources Cited

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. Google search of the word + “etymology”
  3. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary
  4. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.