When I start to get bored with my seemingly endless avian data collection, I play a game of trying to guess the English name based on the scientific name before the relevant Handbook of the Birds of the World page loads on my computer. Because there’s the additional time pressure, I sometimes get my translations horribly wrong.
For example: Pachycephala. It does not mean “elephant head.”
Elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses are not actually each other’s closest relatives, but Georges Cuvier (the “father of paleontology”) thought so in the early 1800s when he decided to group them under the category of “pachyderm.” It makes sense — they’re large, they’re grey, and they have thick skin, the meaning of “pachyderm” (from παχύς pachys “thick” and δερμα derma “skin” as in “dermatology” or “epidermis”).
A thick-skinned pachyderm. (Source: Wikipedia.)
Thus, the genus name Pachycephala actually means “thick head,” with cephala coming from the Greek κεφαλή kephali “head,” as in “hydrocephalus,” “cephalic,” etc. And now I’m wondering if this word has any relation to the Indonesian word for head, kepala, whose etymology I can’t immediately trace?
Anyway, this brings us to this week’s bird, Pachycephala orpheus, the Fawn-breasted Whistler. It’s a small, insectivorous songbird that lives on Wetar (an Indonesian island) and East & West Timor in the Lesser Sundas.
Fawn-breasted Whistler, Pachycephala orpheus (Passeriformes: Pachycephalidae).
Pachycephalids are so named because their heads are unusually blocky.
The species name orpheus refers to the Greek prophet/poet/musician Orpheus, husband of Eurydice (daughter of Apollo, whom he tries and fails to rescue from the Underworld after her death). Much like the English name “whistler,” this is a reference to the birds’ songs, which are very musical whistles. My undergrad institution, Yale, has an a cappella group called the “Society of Orpheus and Bacchus,” commonly referred to as “the SoBs,” which according to their website are the second longest-running a cappella group in the US after the Whiffenpoofs, go figure. Orpheus and/or Eurydice also have a variety of operas and other media re-telling their stories, including the film Moulin Rouge and some poems by Margaret Atwood.
The word “fawn” meaning a young deer dates back to Chaucer and comes from the Old French faon and Medieval Latin feton meaning “offspring” (whence English “fetus”). The use of the phrase “fawn-colored” in English to mean light brown seems to date from the early 1800s. The verb “to fawn” actually has a completely different origin, apparently coming in some roundabout way from the obsolete English word fain (“to rejoice,” from the Old English fægnian) — if you’re rejoicing, you’re showing delight, showing fondness, etc.
Adorable fawn is adorable.
The first recorded use of the English word “breast” is in the West Saxon Gospel of Luke from around 1000 AD, with the Old English breost having lovely Germanic cognates in the Old Frisian briast, Old Saxon briost, Old Norse brjost, and so forth, but is not known in any non-Germanic Indo-European language.