CLM Spring issue 2018 - Page 15

Robert Burton
Hummingbird Hawkmoth, or ‘merrylee-dance-a-pole’. Bill Coster/FLPA
snippet that, had there been more space, would
have been included in my piece about dormice in
the last issue concerned the origin of their name. I had
always thought that ‘dormouse’ was derived from the
Anglo-Norman dormeus, meaning ‘sleepy one’, but I
found that there is a case for its coming from the Old
Norse dúsa – doze, hence ‘dozymouse’ in the Viking
north of England. The two mean much the same, but
what did the Anglo-Saxons call it? ‘Egle’. This would
be much easier to type but would lead to
confusion with very large raptors. I
imagine that ‘egle’ is a basic word
whose roots lie in antiquity and
there is no more point in asking
about its origin than that of
‘table’ or ‘chair’, but I do wonder
how Devonians came to call the
delightful rodent a ‘chestlecrumb’.
I have always had a dilettante
interest in etymology – the origin of
words and changes in their use. I enjoy
browsing maps to speculate on place-names
and look for links with local history. With the names
of animals and plants one can find some interesting
stories of folklore and biology, but some names simply
defy explanation. According to W. H. Hudson, the
Hummingbird Hawkmoth was once called ‘merryleedance-a-pole’. How on earth did that come about?
You have to be suspicious about derivations, because
they can turn out to be false etymology. This is often
guesswork based on what appears to be common
sense but is merely speculative assumption. The guess
is then accepted uncritically and passes into general
knowledge. ‘Foxglove’ is often said to be ‘folks glove’,
the ‘folks’ being fairies. ‘Fairy gloves’, ‘fairy fingers’
and similar names are known throughout the country,
but the oldest recorded name for the plant is the Old
English foxes glofa. The only puzzle is the connection
between the flower and the fox.
So, natural history etymology is great fun but fraught
with difficulty, and so littered with red herrings that it is
often hard to tease out definitive derivations.
There is more interest if the name tells a story.
‘Earwig’ comes from the Old English earwicga, in
which wicga means ‘insect’, and has nothing to do
with ‘wiggle’. People have been worried about earwigs
crawling into their ears from time immemorial, a fear
pooh-poohed by entomologists but verified in medical
journals. Victims complain of a ‘noise like thunder’ and
the treatment is to float the insect out with warm oil.
One problem has become acute in recent years.
As interest in natural history grows, there is a need
to concoct common names for previously overlooked
species. I inherited Edward Step’s (1932) Bees, Wasps,
Ants and Allied Insects of the British Isles from my
father. I suspect that Step invented many of the
common names by anglicising the scientific names:
Yellow-legged Mining Bee (Andrena flavipes), Thorny
Sphecodes (Sphecodes spinulus) and so on. So, I was
interested to see how Steven Falk’s new book Field
Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland deals
with common names. I have made a quick comparison
and was pleased to find that Falk largely follows Step.
Some differences are due to changes in taxonomy,
but Falk includes many more species for which he has
coined names from distinctive attributes of appearance,
habitat etc., which helps to make them memorable.
One of the few fungi that I can recognise is King
Alfred’s Cakes. It looks and feels like a very badly burnt
bun, so it is memorable. Another one is Jew’s
Ear which also has its roots in folklore.
According to legend, Judas Iscariot
hanged himself from an Elder, a
common host for the fungus.
There was a move to change
Jew’s Ear to Jelly Ear in order
to avoid possible offence, but
will there be a similar change to
Auricularia auricula-judae? The
problem of names that might offend
the sensitive was addressed in typical
style by Twitcher in October 2007 (BW 19: 71).
In a roundabout way this brings me to penguins,
which can be considered in British Wildlife because
they once nested on St Kilda. They are better known
today as Great Auks, and the earlier name has been
transferred to similar birds still extant in the southern
hemisphere. The word ‘penguin’ is sometimes said
to be derived from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning
‘white head’. The first account in English of southern
hemisphere penguins comes from Francis Drake’s
circumnavigation in 1577–80. There is reference to a
‘foule, which the Welsh men name Pengwin’ that the
crew saw, and ate, at the tip of South America. Why
single out the Welsh? In many European languages
the name is a variant of ‘pinguin’. Only in English (and
Welsh) is it spelled with an ‘e’. It is said to be derived
from the Latin pinguis – fat. As one who has eaten
penguins, I can confirm the aptness of this idea but,
although the etymology sounds reasonable, there is
no proof. There is, however, another, more descriptive
name for penguins. According to Oliver Goldsmith in
A Hstory of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), ‘Our
sailors…give these birds the very homely, but expressive,
name arse-feet’. Or would that be too offensive?
February 2016 British Wildlife 161
BWM27_3 03 naturalists eyes.indd 161
29/01/2016 11:55


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