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.


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