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Bird words seven


There are many expressions with direct references to birds: jaywalking, mudlarking, crow’s nest, pigeon-toed, pigeon-holed, stool pigeon, swan dive, swan song, eagle-eyed, spread-eagled, a raven-haired beauty, as the crow flies, a hen-pecked husband, rare as hen’s teeth, jail-bird, lame duck, bird’s-eye view, birds of a feather, foreign-policy-doves and -hawks, parroting what someone else has already said, drunk as an owl. But there are also some words whose references to birds are apparent only when you look at their origins.

augur (The first week’s attendance augurs well for the success of our restaurant.) = to be an omen or sign of something to come; from Latin augur, auger, possibly from avis (bird, in connection with omens heard in the twittering of birds, and in the patterns of their entrails when they are cut open) + gar- (root of verb to talk, make known). Something that augurs well is “bird-predicted well.”

auspicious (That was not an auspicious beginning, losing the first three games of the set.) = favorable, conducive to success; from Latin avis (bird) + specĕre (to observe); from the old Roman practice of seeking guidance in one’s affairs by observing the patterns in the flight of birds. An auspicious beginning is a beginning for which birds’ flight pattern is a good omen.

aviator (The plane of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator, went down in the Mediterranean south of Marseilles.) = a pilot of an airplane; from Latin avis (bird) + suffix -ator (the agent). An aviator is a “bird-man.”

cuckold (He was made a cuckold by a visiting rugby player.) = a derisive name for a man whose wife has been unfaithful; from Old French cucu (the cuckoo bird, which lays its eggs in other birds’ nests; in some languages the word applied equally to the adulterer and the husband, but in early English the meaning had already been transferred permanently from the deceiver to the deceived). A cuckolded husband has got himself into a “cuckoo-bird situation.”

flamenco (The ‘Siempre Flamenco’ troupe has some of the best dancers you’ll ever see.) = a flamboyant dance style from Andalusia; possibly from the Spanish word for the flamingo, because of the bird’s colorful plumage and ritualized courtship displays). A flamenco dancer is a “flamingo-like dancer.”

halcyon (These halcyon days are not the best for inspiring angry polemics.) = calm, peaceful; from Greek ἀλκυών, Latin alcyon, halcyon (kingfisher, the name of the bird, in reference to the legend that during the breeding season it nested on the surface of the sea, charming the winds and waves to be calm during that period). Halcyon days are “kingfisher days.”

ocarina (I don’t believe Mozart wrote any concertos for the ocarina.) = a small wind-instrument of ovoid shape; Italian ocarina (‘little goose’), from Italian oca, Latin auca (goose), a diminutive of classical Latin avis (bird) + -ina (feminine suffix). Someone playing an ocarina is playing “a little goose.”


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