Yellowhammer: Emberiza citrinella

Today’s Name This Bird is brought to you by H, who last week not only accompanied me to a public viewing of Oxford’s dodo remains but also asked me lots and lots of questions about museum specimens.

Yellowhammer (source: Wikipedia)

Yellowhammers are cute little European songbirds that have been introduced in many former British colonies (New Zealand, Australia, US, Canada, South Africa, the Falklands, etc) and that apparently inspired Beethoven.

I already effused about color names when I wrote about the Black-capped Chickadee, so I’ll keep my etymology of “yellow” short. Yellow, which is defined by the OED to be “the color of gold, butter, the yolk of an egg, various flowers, and other objects,” can be traced back to the Indo-European *ghelwo.

“Hammer” is an etymology I partially know, as in my Old Norse class in undergrad we read Þrymskviða, a poem in which Thor’s hammer is stolen by a giant, Loki finds this hilarious, and chaos ensues. There’s not much I can reliably discuss in Old Norse, but a hamarr is definitely one of them. Seriously, go read this poem, most of it is an amazing comedy, and then at the end everyone dies, it’s great.

Anyway, beyond the various Germanic hamor (Old English), hamur (Old Saxon), hamer (Dutch), etc, the trail goes a bit cold: the Old Norse hamarr can also mean “crag” and so, along with the Slavic kamy (Russian kamen) meaning “stone,” one might argue that the original meaning was “stone tool,” but I wish you luck finding evidence beyond that.

The genus name Emberiza, and the family name Emberizidae, come from the Old German word embritz meaning “bunting” (a type of small sparrow-y thingy).

Wait, you’re saying. This small yellow bird clearly is not a hammer. Why are we calling it a yellowhammer, again?

I’m getting there. Embritz was one Germanic word for a bunting, but the more common variant was ammer. (“embri”…”ammer”…basically the same word, right?) Much in the same way that we got the word “groom” from “bridegroom” because the original word was “brideguma” but nobody knew what the heck a “guma” was (a process called “reanalysis” or “folk etymology”), English speakers, observing this bird apparently  called “an ‘ammer,” over time turned in into “a hammer,” which is at least a word.

Other examples of this phenomenon in English include “chaise lounge” from the French “chaise longue” (literally “long chair”), “to buttonhole” (as in to force a person to talk to you) from “buttonhold” (no longer a thing), “curry favor” from “curry favel” (“favel”being a type of horse), “sparrow grass” from “asparagus” depending on where you’re from, etc.

Asparagus, a delicious but apparently linguistically perplexing vegetable,

Anyway, after all of that, the species name, citrinella? It’s just Latin for “yellow,” or, more precisely “lemon-colored.” Compare “citronella,” oil coming from “lemongrass” (thus named because it tastes and smells of lemons…which are yellow), “citrus” (which originally just meant “lemon” — again they’re yellow — but then later expanded to include limes, grapefruits, etc), citron (French for “lemon”), and so forth.

Lemon, a fruit only delicious with lots of sugar and not particularly perplexing. The English word “lemon” itself comes from the Arabic ليمونlaimun.


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