Oleaginous Hemispingus: Sphenopsis frontalis

As requested by William Jones, a PhD student at Uppsala University (@JacanaJones on Twitter): Oleaginous Hemispingus, which, yes, is an English bird name.

51037071The Oleaginous Hemispingus, Sphenopsis frontalis. Image by Juan José Arango.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World begins its description of this species with “dingy, dull hemispingus with relatively slender bill”, which is not a promising start. A “hemispingus” is a genus of tanagers, found mostly in the Andes. The Oleaginous Hemispingus is found at medium altitudes (1400-2900 m) in dense forests of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, eats insects, and sings in quartets.

The word “spingus” comes from the Greek σπίνος (spinos) meaning “finch”; I’m also seeing references to a Greek word σπίγγος (spiggos) to mean “chaffinch”, but I can’t actually confirm this. The prefix “hemi”, of course, means “half” — think “hemisphere” — and actually comes from the same root as the more productive prefix “semi” (Greek ήμι, emi, versus Latin semi-, Sanskrit sami-, Old English sam-, etc). Hemispinguses are tanagers that look like finches, or half-finches. Hemi-finches. Hemi-spingus.

1200px-Semicircle.svg A semi-circle.

The word “oleaginous” means “having the nature or properties of oil”, according to the OED, from the French oléagineux, same meaning, or the Latin oleāginus meaning “relating to the olive tree”. I’m guessing this bird gets this name via the Latin meaning, because it’s olive-coloured? But, uh, if you’re reading this and have a better idea, let me know?

41837c28ba515760f431cc174f945533-florence-oliveOlive trees, which produce olives, which are oily, and also yellow-green?

The genus name, Sphenopsis, means “wedge-appearing”, from the Greek σφήνα, spena, “wedge”, and όψις, opsis, “appearance, sight, vision”. The form “opsis” you’re probably familiar with, particularly if you’re a scientist: optical, opsin, Arabidopsis (“thing that looks like genus Arabis“). Anyway, genus Sphenopsis was first described as having a much more wedge-shaped beak than similar species.

Arabidopsis_thalianaArabidopsis thaliana. Photo by M G Tuffen.

The species name frontalis is Latin for “forehead” and is typically given to species with something distinctive going on in the front bit of the skull. For example: the Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) has a distinctive white forehead; the Blue-fronted Redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis) has a blue head contrasting with a red body; the Collared Treepie (Dendrocitta frontalis) has a black head contrasting with a white body. The Oleaginous Hemispingus has a bit of an eyebrow going on, so I guess that’s good enough.

This is, remarkably, our first tanager, so! The family name for tanagers, Thraupidae, comes from the Ancient Greek word θραυπίς, thraupis, which was a word used by Aristotle to mean a species of finch, possibly the Eurasian Siskin. The genus Thraupis has been largely replaced with Tangara, which is a Tupi* word meaning “dancer” and the source of the English word “tanager”. (Compare the tanager genus Saltator, which is Latin for “dancer”.)

* “Tupi” is actually a language family, comprising at least 70 different languages. That sentence that I wrote is the equivalent of saying “चिड़िया is the Indo-European word for ‘finch'” — it’s actually the Hindi word for “finch”, not a word that equally applies to all other Indo-European languages like English, Russian, or Kurdish. Unfortunately, I don’t know which Tupian language “tangara” comes from. The 1760 record just says that it’s a “Brazilian” word. The best I can do is tell you that the Wayampi word for “tanager” is tängala.

1024px-Ministério_da_Cultura_-_Samba_de_roda_com_baianas_e_Olívia_SantanaBrazilian performers of the samba de roda, an Afro-Brazilian dance. Image via Wikipedia.


Southern Red Bishop: Euplectes orix

I really like the word “oryx”. You wanna know why? Because I cannot make the word-initial Dutch /g/ sound as in gemsbok, the Afrikaner name for this beautiful creature below. (Don’t @ me, I can make plenty of other similar consonant sounds, like the Kiswahili /gh/ and the German and Hebrew /ch/s.) “Oryx” is such a lovely, easily-pronounced alternative, no mangling of any Germanic languages required.

Oryx_gazella_-_Etosha_2014A gemsbok/oryx — a large southern African antelope. Photo by Yathin S Krishnappa.

It turns out, though, that this week’s bird is Euplectes ORIX, not Euplectes oryx, which is what I first thought. “Oryx” (acceptable plurals including oryx, oryxes, and orygen) entered Middle English from Latin some time before the Wycliffe Bible (1382), because there are oryx in the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah. The word orix, though, is Latin for “rice”. Cf: Greek όρυζα (oruza), Italian orzo (“barley”, but in English at least it’s come to mean pasta cut to look like rice), etc.

800px-White,_Brown,_Red_&_Wild_riceRice. Image via Wikipedia.

The Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix, Passeriformes: Ploceidae) is a small, red-and-black bird found in southern Africa. It eats insects and seeds — this might be the “rice” connection? Bishops do pretty well in captivity, so you may have seen these or the closely-related Northern Red Bishops as cage birds. (My grandfather’s nursing home lobby had some Black-winged Red Bishops, also closely related.)

800px-Euplectes_sp_PLW_cropA Southern Red Bishop, by JJ Harrison.

The genus name Euplectes comes from the prefix eu- (Greek for “good”, often used to mean “true” — this eukaryotes, eutrophication, even some more obscure ones like “eucalyptus” and “eucharist” and “euthanasia” ) plus a Latinised noun form of πλέκω (pleko, Greek, “to plait/braid”). In other words, Euplectes = good braiders.

how to french braidImage description: a French braid. Or “plait” if you’re British.

The family name Ploceidae also comes from the Greek word πλέκω (pleko, “to plait/braid”), via the word πλοκευς (plokeus, typically translated as “weaver”). Strangely, modern Greek Google Translate has decided that πλοκευς means “installation”. I got nothin’.

JohnWilliamWaterhouse-PenelopeandtheSuitors(1912)The painting “Penelope and the Suitors” by John William Waterhouse. In the Odyssey, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, refuses to marry again until she’s woven a shroud for Laertes. Except every night she un-weaves the weaving she had done that day. (Yes, Penelope’s faithful to Odysseus, not knowing if he’s alive, whereas Odysseus cheats on her multiple times.)

The English word “bishop” dates to the Old English biscop and is cognate with the Old Norse biskup, coming to the Germanic languages via vulgar Latin ebiscopus, classical Latin episcopus (cf Episcopal Church), ancient Greek ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos, meaning “overseer”).

“Red” — which the OED defines as the colour of blood, a ruby, or a ripe tomato — has lovely cognates all over Indo-European: Sanskrit rudhira, Welsh rhudd, Lithuansian raudas, Latin ruber, and so forth.

Tumblr_mfhecvqSQr1qlrrbto1_1280“RED: the blood of angry men!” (a lyric in “Red & Black” from the musical Les Mis) (this is a picture of Enjolras, a character from Les Mis)

And finally, the English word “southern” dates to Old English — suðerna — and is Germanic in origin (West Frisian sud, Dutch zuid, German Sued, etc). The OED somewhat skeptically raises the possibility that these words could be related to the Indo-European word for “sun” (the sun in the northern hemisphere being mostly to the south). Also, it appears that the French words for “south” and “east”, sud and est, were 12th-ish century borrowings from English. Take that, Norman conquerors.

Anyway, there we have it. Southern Red Bishop: “Sun-Facing Tomato-Coloured Overseer, Good Braider, [Eats] Rice.”

Joyful Greenbul: Chlorocichla laetissima

I keep a running list of bird names that would be neat to feature on this blog, and the Joyful Greenbul (Chlorocichla laetissima, Passeriformes: Pycnonotidae) is currently at the top of the list.

I have no idea why.

No matter! Greenbuls are neat too, I’m sure. The Joyful Greenbul is a small, frugivorous (fruit-eating) and granivorous (seed-eating) songbird found in the mid-altitude forests of Central & East Africa (primarily Kenya, Uganda, and the DRC).

Joyful_Greenbul_-_Kakamega_Kenya_06_1593_(16844634377)A Joyful Greenbul. Photo by Francesco Veronesi.

The word “Greenbul” is a portmanteau of “green” + “bulbul”. According to the OED, “bulbul” comes to English via Persian from the Arabic bulbul (بلبل, possibly better transliterated as balabal?). The word “green” is of Germanic origin: compare German grün, Dutch groen, Icelandic grænn, Old Frisian grene, and so forth.

The English word “joy” is cognate with the French joie and Italian gioia, the latter of which also means “jewel” (cf Portuguese joia, Spanish joya). All of these words apparently come from the Latin gaudium, “joy”, though I confess that these sound changes somewhat elude me. This word gaudium is also the source of the English word “gaudy”, meaning “excessively ornamented”. (It’s often been claimed that the word “gaudy” comes from the artist Antoni Gaudi, but this is incorrect, as the OED’s first use of “gaudy” in this way dates to 1529, and Gaudi was born in 1852.)

1024px-Sagrada_Familia_nave_roof_detailLa Sagrada Familia, the Barcelona basilica designed by Gaudi. Whether or not it is gaudy is up for debate. Photo by Wikipedia user SBA73.

The OED’s etymology entry for the word “full” (joyful = joy + full) is amazing. It quickly escalates from the various obvious Germanic cognates (Frisian fol, Dutch vol, German voll, Gothic fulls) to Avestan pərəna / Sanskrit purna and Welsha llawn. This is why I’m not a linguist.

The genus name, Chlorocichla, comes from the Greek χλορος (chloros) which can mean either yellow or green (cf: chlorophyll) and κίχλη (kichle) meaning “thrush”. The species name, laetissima, is Latin, for “very happy” (laetus = happy, joyful).

The family name, Pycnonotidae, is Greek again: πυκνός (pyknos) meaning “thick” and νώτα (nota) meaning “back”. Apparently bulbuls backs are thickly covered with feathers.

800px-Red-whiskered_Bulbul-webThe back of a bulbul (specifically a Red-whiskered Bulbul, by Shiva Shankar), looking pretty normal to me.

Madagascar Flufftail: Sarothrura insularis

Today’s bird is the Madagascar Flufftail, Sarothrura insularis (Gruiformes: Sarothruridae), for no other reason than I like the word “flufftail”.

Flufftails are small, poorly-studied African birds related to rails. Most species are sexually dimorphic, and all have short, fluffy tails.

800px-CorethruraInsularisKeulemans(Image in the public domain, from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, vol 1871, plate XXXII, via Wikipedia)

The word “Madagascar” comes into English via the Middle French Madagascar, which in turn is likely a combination of Madagasi, how Malagasy refer to themselves, and the Arabic barr meaning “land”. (Confession: I got this from the OED and am having trouble independently verifying it.)

Malagasy is a really interesting language, in that it’s Austronesian — related to, say, Indonesian and Fijian and Te Reo Maori and Hawaiian, and not related to any language on the African continent. Austronesian-speaking people came over to Madagascar from Kalimantan between the 3rd and 10th centuries; Madagascar was also settled by a number of people from East Africa, and if I knew more about linguistics I could tell you about the Bantu and Arabic influences on the Malagasy language.

MAD0505-aabadaa5bcdcImage by Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

The OED thinks that the word “fluff” is an onomatopoeic alteration of the word “flue” (a word I didn’t know, but that also means “fluff”). It’s unclear where “flue” comes from in this meaning.

Sidenote, though, there are SO MANY other meanings of the word “flue”, including: a fishing net, a chimney (I think most people know this meaning), the tip of a horn/anchor/harpoon, a farrier’s lancet (?!), a synonym for “flan” (meaning “shallow” — flans, the cakes, are flat), weak, “to expand”, or “to allow the ink to run”.

the-perfect-flanFlan. Basically the same thing as “fluff”.

The word “tail” is cognate with the Old Norse and Gothic tagl and was present in Old English as tægel. Old English also had the word steort meaning “tail” (cf Dutch staart), and the OED reliably informs me that the English word “start” has variously meant “tail of an animal”, “steering-handle of plough”, “handles in general”, a promontory, the shaft of a candlestick, or any number of handle-/shaft-/lever-like things. Thanks, English.

69495d9894661c9e865a845c34618accI only just learned that Brits refer to the game “Clue” as “Cluedo”. And also that the movie “Clue” didn’t earn back it’s budget. Both of these things are very strange facts.

The Madagascar Flufftail’s scientific name is Sarothrura insularis. The word “insularis” is just Latin for “island” (Madagascar being an island). Sarothrura comes from the Greek σάρωμα saroma meaning “broom” and ουρά oura meaning “tail”. Fluff-tail, broom-tail, basically the same idea? The genus name also provides the family name, Sarothruridae.

314746-BELDRAY-STAINLESS-STEEL-BROOM-Edit1A broom. From the Old English bróm, cognate with the Dutch brem (as in the plant, originally used for sweeping, before plastic was a thing).

Christmas Boobook: Ninox natalis

Once upon a time I studied Australian ethnobiology, which means that I know lots and lots of names for Australian plants and animals (especially from Arnhem Land). I therefore know that a “mopoke”, also known as a “morepoke”, is a synonym for “boobook” and is a type of owl, specifically the Southern Boobook (Ninox boobook). Many members of the genus Ninox are called “boobooks”, though, which brings us to this post’s featured species: the Christmas Boobook.

christmas_is_hawkowl_39728 Christmas Boobook. Photo by Ian Montgomery.

The words “boobook” and “mopoke”/”morepoke” are imitative of the owl’s call. The OED lists delightful synonyms for these words, including “buckbuck”, “mawpawk”, “morepork”, and “mope poke”. The OED also clarifies that “morepork”, when pronounced with a British or Australian accent, is pronounced the same as “mopoke” — it’s only us silly Americans who insist on pronouncing our /r/’s.

tjalla-wall-clock__0540839_pe653259_s4True story: I once had a British housemate who told me and a Canadian a story about a “clerk” and we thought it was a story about a “clock”. Non-rhotic dialects ftw.

The word “Christmas” is nice and straightforward. It comes from the Old English phrase Cristes mæsse meaning “festival (mass) of Christ”. This word “mass” to mean a Catholic church service is cognate with Latin missa, Dutch mis, German Messe, Danish messe, and so forth. The English word “Christ” comes to us via Latin Christus from the Greek Χριστός “anointed” (whence “chrism”, for those of you who are Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican, and also whence “cream”, as cream is more oily than milk). The word “messiah” also means “anointed”, incidentally, as it comes from the Hebrew mashia.

The Christmas Boobook is found on Christmas Island, so named by Captain William Mynors of the East India Trading Company, who sailed past the island on December 25, 1643. Christmas Island is an Australian territory southwest of Java, Indonesia. It was valued for its phosphate deposits (including by the Japanese, who took it over during WWII), and today it’s known for its immigration detention centre.

7142794-16x9-940x529This is apparently a picture from Christmas Island. Photo source: ABC.

The species name natalis is Latin for “birth” (whence “natal”) and also refers to the “Christmas” part of Christmas Island (Christmas = birth of Christ).

The genus name Ninox is a portmanteau, which is super cool. Portmanteaux are words formed by blending two other words, like “brunch” or “labradoodle” or “Brangelina”. Specifically, Ninox comes from Nisus, which refers to the sparrowhawk (in the myth of Nisus and Euryalus, Nisus gets turned into a hawk, maybe?), and Noctua, meaning “owl”. Ninox owls are large, have long tails, and lack ear tufts and facial disks — aka, are owls that are like hawks — and some of their English names are indeed “hawk-owls”.

Portmanteau_words.pngA portmanteau — a type of traveling case — itself a portmanteau of porte meaning “carry” and manteau meaning “coat”.

Boobooks are what are known as “true owls”: members of the family Strigidae (order Strigiformes). These family and order names come from the Latin strix (“screech-owl”) (the plural of strix is striges), which in turn is from the Greek στρίξ (strix), meaning “owl”.

But wait, you say. I know my Greek and Roman myths, you say. I’ve been to the top of Notre Dame, you say. Aren’t the Strix vampires?

1024px-Notre_Dame_HDRThat gargoyle on top of Notre Dame that everyone who’s done the climb takes the exact same picture of? Yeah, that gargoyle’s called “Le Stryge”. Photo by Wikipedia user Prosthetic Head.

Yeah, the Strix were blood-sucking, flesh-eating “products of metamorphosis” (thanks, Wikipedia). Guess what? Screech-owls were said to drain the blood of infants. Delightful, huh?

Edward-376194_429619737081258_1836140990_nEdward Cullen, one of the vampires from the series Twilight. Not a screech-owl.

Bonaparte’s Gull: Larus philadelphia

Last autumn, I had a research assistant who was really, really French, who would get fairly animated whenever the subject of Napoleon came up. At some point I was collecting data on Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philedelphia), and she happened to look over my shoulder.

Her: “Ooh, is that bird named after Napoleon Bonaparte?!”

Me: “There’s no way that can be true…can it?”

141106-omalley-napoleon-tease_nkt8fv.jpgAn image of Napoleon looking very French, or something.

Turns out we were both right: Bonaparte’s Gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. CLB was born in France, raised in Italy, married his cousin in Belgium, set off for the New World at the age of 19 (discovering a new bird along the way, Wilson’s Storm-petrel), traveled around the US studying birds, traveled around Europe talking about birds, got elected to the Roman Assembly, lad some Roman troops against his cousin Louis Napoleon, and at some point fathered 12 children.

(By the way, in case anyone reading this is from my hometown — Lake Bonaparte in Lewis Country, NY, is actually named after Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. He lived there after he got exiled from France. #uselessknowledge)

A Bonaparte’s Gull in breeding plumage. Photo by D Gordon E Robertson, via Wikipedia.

 The species name, philadelphia, comes from the US city, Philadelphia. I presume because our friend CLB lived there when he first came to the US? Looking at the range map, I’m not entirely sure that Bonaparte’s Gulls can be found in Philadelphia, but if not, it’s close.

The OED has entries for “Philadelphia lawyer” (which apparently can either mean “a very able and intelligent lawyer” or “an unscrupulous lawyer”, so I’m not sure if this is a compliment or not), “Philadelphia chromosome” (particular translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22), and “Philadelphia cheesesteak” (a delicious sandwich). And as any American who paid attention in middle school history class knows, the name “Philadelphia” means “brotherly love”, from the Greek philos for “love” (cf “philosophy” “love of knowledge”) and adelphos “brother”. Philly was founded by Quakers, what can I say.

campos-deli-philadelphia-cheesesteak1-920vpThis is a Philly cheesesteak. If you eat meat, it is delicious.

We have covered the word gull (it’s Welsh! for “gull”), as well as the the genus name Larus (Greek: “gull”), whence family Laridae. I seem not to have said anything about Charadriiformes (shorebirds), but Charadrius (plovers) comes from the Greek χαράδρα charadra meaning “canyon”. Apparently there’s some yellowish nocturnal bird that lives in ravines, supposedly cures jaundice, and is mentioned in the Vulgate Bible by this name, and someone at some point decided it was actually a Ringed Plover. Go figure.

(As a professional ornithologist I feel obligated to point out that Ringed Plovers do not live in ravines/canyons/etc, don’t cure jaundice or otherwise protect you from the evil eye, aren’t particularly yellow, and are cathemeral rather than nocturnal.)

Resplendent Quetzal: Pharomachrus mocinno

Resplendent Quetzals, Pharomachrus mocinno (Trogoniformes: Trogonidae) are highly excellent birds. The males are a bright, iridescent green, with tails about twice the length of their body. The females, however, look like pretty typical trogons — dull front, green back, black-and-white striped tail. Ohai sexual selection.

Resplendent Quetzals are found in cloud forests throughout Central America, from NW Panama stretching over to Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico. I’ve seen one, a male, outside of Boquete, Panama.

Resplendent_Quetzal_in_Costa_RicaResplendent Quetzal (image by Supreet Sahoo, via Wikipedia).

The word “quetzal” comes into English via Spanish from the Nahuatl quetzalli, meaning a quetzal feather. The Nahuatl word for a quetzal itself is quetzaltototl (“tototl” meaning “bird”).

Other English words that come via Spanish from Nahuatl (sometimes known as “the language of the Aztecs”, but spoken by around 1.5 million people today) include avocado (from āhuacatl, “testicle”), cocoa, chili, chipotle, coyote, guacamole, hoatzin (the bird), ocelot, taco, tomato, and shack (from xacalli, “a wooden hut”).

200px-Rundown_ShackI had never before thought about the origin of the word “shack”, but the OED backs up Wikipedia on this: it’s probably Nahuatl. For the curious, “shackle” comes from the Old English sceacul and has cognates throughout the Germanic languages.

In contrast, the word “resplendent” is much more boring: it comes from the Latin resplendent, same meaning, with cognates in Old French, Old Occitan, Catalan, Italian, etc.

165150627_f592f9d32f_z.jpgThis is what comes up when you Google “resplendent.” It’s certainly very lovely? Image by Gaëtan Bourque.

I must confess to being originally perplexed by the genus name, Pharomachrus. The Handbook of the Birds of the World translates it as Greek for “long cloak” (φάρος pharos + μακρος macros). I’m totally with them on macros for some synonym of “big” — macroecology, macroevolution, macrophage, macroscopic, macrobiotic — but I’m confused about pharos. φάρος means “lighthouse,” or any sort of beacon. It’s where we get Latin pharus, French phare, Spanish and Italian faro, etc. It comes from the island of the same name, off the coast of Alexandria, upon which there was…a lighthouse. I’m finding lots of potential Greek words for cloak, such as μανδύας, but none of them look anything like pharos.

The OED does have an entry for the English word “pharos”, though, meaning “a cloak”, and claims that this word is from the Greek ϕάρος , so who am I to argue.

381f3fe3b75c92c1dc7b6b6bd539fb60This is Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange. He has a very long cloak (the “cloak of levitation,” not that I’m a Marvel fan or anything). He is not a lighthouse.

Anyway, the species name is very easy: mocinno comes from José Mariano Mociño, a naturalist from “New Spain” (now Mexico), who was the first to classify the Resplendent Quetzal.

The Trogonidae are the 39 species that make up the sole family in the order Trogoniformes, tropical things with short necks and heterodactyl toes. (Meaning digits 1 and 2 point backward and digits 3 and 4 point forward. They’re the only animals that do this. Most birds are anisodactyl, meaning that digit 1 is backwards and the rest forwards. Think about how you’d grip the monkey bars, then pretend your pinkie isn’t there — that’s anisodactyl.)

Anyway, the word “trogon” comes from the Greek τρώγων (trogon) meaning “to gnaw”, referring to the fact that trogons use their beaks to excavate their own nests in trees.

Cookie_monsterYou can gnaw on trees to build yourself a nest…or you can gnaw on cookies. Om nom cookies.

Common Chiffchaff: Phylloscopus collybita

These days, I work in the EXCD lab, where I am surrounded by fluent or near-fluent German speakers. (Not all  linguists are fluent in a bazillion different languages, but the ones I work with are. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.)

Anyway, this is relevant because I have a new favorite German word: der Zilpzalp. Or, as the English would say, “chiffchaff.” Which, as any North American will immediately point out, is a pretty goofy word in itself.

1024px-chiffchaff_-_phylloscopus_collybita Das ist ein Zilpzalp von Wikipedia. Andreas Trepte ist der Fotograf.

The Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita (Passeriformes: Phylloscopidae), is a small, insectivorous bird found throughout Europe and Russia in the summer and northern Africa through the Arabian Peninsula into India in the winter, with year-round overlap in western Europe, including the UK. They’re ground-nesters, which mean that they’re particularly vulnerable to predation by cats. (Domestic cats kill an estimated 55 million birds each year in the UK and between 1 billion and 4 billion each year in the US. Yes, billion with a “b.” I love cats, but please, take sensible precautions with your pets.)

The word “chiffchaff” is onomatopoetic, coming from their simple, repetitive, two-note song, which sounds like “chiff-chaff.” Or, if you’re German, “zilp-zalp.” The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the Chiffchaff is also known as the “Lesser Pettychaps,” which I think is a great name. (The OED thinks that “Pettychaps” is also onomatopoetic and attributes the origin to Yorkshire.)

220px-whiteandpinkpetticoat Petticoats. Almost like pettichaps? (Image source: Wikipedia.)

The genus name Phylloscopus and the family name Phylloscopidae come from the Greek φύλλο “phyllo” meaning “leaf” and σκοπος “skopos” meaning an aim or a purpose or even a target. The Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive’s etymology of “Phylloscopus” suggests that “scopus” means “seeker.” Chiffchaffs and other so-called “Phylloscopus warblers” (yes, that’s what we call them) spend a lot of time in the leaves — HBW’s “leaf-seeker” seems like a great translation to me from a biological perspective, even if the Greek is a bit of a stretch.

phyllo is where we get “filo dough” — the dough is leaves of flaky pastry. Botanists will recognize this word: chlorophyll. Phyllophore. It doesn’t seem to be where we get “phylum” (as in “kingdom, phylum, class, order…”), as that would be ϕῦλον “phylon” meaning “tribe”, but I like the poetry of leaves on the tree of live. And despite the romanization of “phyllo” into “filo,” we sadly can’t make the leap to “fila” (“thread,” as in “filament”) — that seems to be a purely Latin root.

baklava (Delicious, delicious filo dough. Image source: Wikipedia.)

“Skopos” should be very familiar to us: microscope. Or, if you’re a bird watcher, a spotting scope. Outside the scope of a paper. Not actually related to a (now obsolete) use of the verb “scope” to mean “to make a horse jump or leap.” That etymology can be traced to the Old Norse skopa “to run.”

hqdefault You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him scope.

White-winged Diuca-finch: Diuca speculifera

The past few weeks have been a little Asia-heavy, so today I’ll return to the New World and focus on the White-winged Diuca-finch, Diuca speculifera (Passeriformes: Emberizidae). This finch is a high-altitude specialist, found in the Altiplano, or the plateau found in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They’re the only bird besides penguins to nest on glaciers, a fact discovered by a 14-year-old, and their nests have been found as high as 5300 meters (17,000 feet).

White-winged_Diuca-Finch_-_Chile_(23392277235)White-winged Diuca-finch. Not the greatest picture, but it’s what’s in the public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

The word Diuca comes from Mapudungün, the language of the Mapuche people. (This language is also known as Araucano, for example in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, but this term is considered offensive.) Mapudungün is a language isolate, meaning that it’s not known to be related to any other languages on Earth — other examples of language isolates include Basque, Ainu, Korean, Sumerian, Tiwi, Natchez, and Zuni. Mapudungün is spoken in Chile and Argentina by around 260,000 people, though very few children are currently learning the language.

AltiplanoThis is the Altiplano. Isn’t it beautiful? Definitely on my list of places to go someday.

The word “white” I’ve already covered, and the word “wing” comes from the Old Norse vængir (cf Swedish and Danish vinge), which replaced the Old English feþra, a word at the time meaning “wing” but is now only preserved in the word “feather.” Remarkably, feþra is cognate with πτερόν (“pteron”), the Greek word meaning “wing” that was discussed along with the Flightless Steamerduck, Tachyeres pteneres, as well as the Sanskrit pet, leading us to the Indo-European construction *-pet .

VikingshipThose darn Vikings and their Old Norse loanwords! (Like, for example, the word “loan,” which came from the Old Norse lán.)

Finally, the word “finch” can be traced directly to Old English finc and might refer to the Chaffinch’s “pink” call. (Possibly cf Welsh pinc, Russian penka, Breton pintetc?)

Sumatran Niltava: Niltava sumatrana

During my final semester at Yale, I took for fun an upper-level anthropology seminar called “Himalayan Languages and Cultures.” (Yes, Yale’s the sort of place where they’ll let an undergrad from a different department take a postgrad-level class for no real reason beyond “it sounds cool,” though at the time I gave a more professional justificiation for why they should let me into the class.) This class was amazing — it was taught by Mark Turin, who is a seriously awesome dude — and as such, I get lots of warm fuzzies when I encounter a Himalayan language.


Last week’s bird was the Himalayan Monal, words that come from Sanskrit and Nepali respectively. Which got me wondering — are there any other bird names that come from Nepali?

Turns out the answer is yes — the word “niltava” comes from the Nepali niltau, the local name for the Rufous-bellied Niltava (Niltava sundara). Niltavas are small, colorful, old-world flycatchers, found mostly in southeast Asia. Today’s bird is one of the six species of niltavas, the Sumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana.

UntitledSumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana (Passeriformes: Muscicapidae). Source: Internet Bird Collection

Sumatra is an island in Indonesia, specifically the large island running northwest to southeast on the western side of Indonesia, just south/southwest of Malaysia and Indonesia. Sumatra is home to a tremendous amount of biodiversity — tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, orangutans, the world’s largest individual flower (Rafflesia arnoldii, aka the “corpse flower”, aka the thing that the Pokemon sequence Oddish/Gloom/Vileplume is based on), the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence (Amorphophallus titanum, titan arum, helpfully also known as the “corpse flower”), etc — though this biodiversity is currently threatened by heavy deforestation. The northern end of Sumatra is Aceh, a semi-autonomous region of Indonesia that is governed under very conservative Islamic law and was the site of years of nasty conflicts between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists. (Aceh is also desperately poor and was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. We’re talking around 170,000 deaths for the region, out of 230,000 deaths total.) (If your brain works like mine, Wikipedia’s lists of deadly natural disasters are fascinating and also very, very sad.)

Rafflesia_sumatraRafflesia arnoldii, via Wikipedia. The genus was named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore who took Java over from the Dutch in 1811. The species name comes from Joseph Arnold, a British surgeon who ended up stranded in what is now Jakarta and took up botany because why not. This Joseph Arnold is not to be confused with the Rhode Islander Joseph Arnold, who has a Wikipedia page because he had a lot of kids in the 1700s.

045VileplumeThe Pokemon “Vileplume.”

Titan-arum1webAmorphophallus titanum. Genus from the Greek άμορφος “amorphos” meaning “amorphous” (literally “without form” — think morphology, morphospace, morph, etc) and φαλλός “phallos” meaning “phallus.” See, Greek is not a hard language. The species name “titan” just means “big,” referring to the Titans, who in ancient Greek mythology preceded the Olympians (the Greek gods we know and love) — think Titanic (a big ship), Titan (the biggest of Saturn’s moons), etc. Titanium, the element, was discovered right after uranium, and in mythology Uranus was the father of the Titans.

The etymology of “Sumatra” seems complicated and politically fraught, so I’m going to say that it’s from the Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) name for the island, Sumatera, and call it a day.

2000px-LocationSumatra.svgThe location of Sumatra, via Wikipedia.

The family name Muscicapidae, referring to the Old World flycatchers, comes from the Latin musca meaning “fly” (the animal, like French mouche, Spanish mosca, possibly Greek μύγαmuga, etc) and the Latin capere, which both means and is the source of “capture” (via French, capturer).