What’s in a Name?

Common cuckoo, by Matt Merritt

Common cuckoo, by Matt Merritt

Bird names are a poetry in themselves. For every relatively straightforward, functional moniker—pied wagtail, or green woodpecker, for example—there are half a dozen that are more evocative, intriguing and, sometimes, hard to pin down.

Those that imitate the bird’s song or call—cuckoo, say, or chiffchaff—have a music all of their own, and even to hear or read the name is to be briefly transported from behind your desk to a leafy, hedge-lined lane on a balmy spring evening. It might not be too much of a stretch to imagine that poetry and song started from that point of naming, the desire to encapsulate sound and form in a single act.

Wheatear, female, Maidens, South Ayrshire, Scotland, by Mark Medcalf via Wikimedia Commons

Wheatear, female, Maidens, South Ayrshire, Scotland, by Mark Medcalf via Wikimedia Commons

But then there are those that have no immediately obvious origin. Wheatear? It’s a bird found on close-cropped upland sheep pastures, or even rocky slopes, rather than cultivated land of any kind, let alone a wheat field. In fact, as those of you of a bawdier turn of mind might already know, it comes from the Anglo-Saxon “hvit oers,” literally “white arse.” One flash of its bright white rump as it flits away from you, and it all makes perfect sense.

The real point, though, is that the mention of a name like that immediately sets off all sorts of connections—the apparent origin of the name, the actual origin of the name, and the sights, smells and sounds of wherever it was you last saw a wheatear. It’s a process not at all unlike the reading of poetry. Bird names work best when they retain a layer or two of suggestion and implication. That’s a little unfair on the likes of the green sandpiper, perhaps, a fine-looking bird that’s passing through my patch in good numbers at the moment, but that descriptive label does it no favours in an artistic sense. On the other hand, perhaps green sandpipers are a little relieved that they can get on with their lives without being constantly bothered by poets and nature writers, like other waders such as whimbrels.

Recently, I’ve been becoming aware of just how many names most of our familiar birds have. John Clare (the 19th century “peasant poet” of one of my previous posts) used an astonishing number of dialect names for familiar species, and many of these retained currency until very recently. Polly dishwasher, for the aforementioned pied wagtail, for example, or bumbarrel for the long-tailed tit (a name connected to their barrel-shaped nests). Starlings were starnels, to Clare, and still are, in some parts of the East Midlands.

Another 19th century figure, Richard Jefferies, came from similarly humble origins as Clare, growing up on a Wiltshire farm but going on to be regarded as an important nature writer, and like Clare he too frequently refers to birds by their dialect names. I’ve been commissioned to write a long poem as an afterword to a reissue of his novel After London, a pioneering work of speculative fiction with an ecological slant, and in the course of reading it, I was intrigued by his references to a brook-sparrow.

A bit of detective work and some questions to the hive-mind of Twitter suggested that this was actually a name for the sedge warbler, a widespread and numerous British bird. Is it a more accurate name than the official one? Well, it touches on the generally dull brown, sparrow-like appearance of the species, and ties them to water rather than vegetation, but it’s entirely possible that it was accurate only for that part of the country with which Jefferies was familiar.

Occasionally, some of these dialect names pass into common usage. When I started birdwatching, the species Catharacta skua was invariably called great skua in field guides and birding publications. These days, it’s pretty much interchangeable with bonxie, a word derived from a Shetland word for an aggressive, bullying person. Perfectly evocative of our skua.

Northern lapwing, or peewit, by Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons

Northern lapwing, or peewit, by Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons

Or take peewit, for Vanellus vanellus. Although most bird books refer to it as the lapwing, most average non-birding Brits would use the nickname, which derives from the bird’s call. It, and a number of regional variations on it such as pyewipe, have been permanently marked on the landscape, with farms, roads and even villages deriving their own names from it. Poetry in …well, the opposite of motion. Inertia, I suppose.

So, I’ll end this month by pointing you in the direction of this peewit poem, from Edward Thomas. He was another nature writer, a self-described “hack” who churned out travel guides and reference books to order for many years, and only began writing poetry shortly before the First World War. He was a close friend of the great American poet Robert Frost, who played a huge part in encouraging him, and once Thomas got started there was no stopping him. He’s been in the news a little lately, because we’ve just passed the centenary of the writing of his most famous poem, Adlestrop.

Finally joining up, even though he was old enough to have avoided the draft, he was killed in France, leaving behind a small but increasingly influential body of poetic work. These days, his marrying of conversational rhythms to Edwardian formalism, and his intensely close observation of the natural world, has made him the touchstone for a whole new generation of poets, as well as the symbol of a generation lost to the madness of war. And so, there’s another connection that the names peewit or lapwing immediately spark in my mind: a wading bird tumbling through the air over northern France, watched by a homesick soldier.


About the Author
 Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk

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