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1 July 2001 A Thesaurus of Bird Names: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms
Storrs L. Olson
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A Thesaurus of Bird Names: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms—Michel Desfayes. 1998. Museé Cantonal d'Histoire Naturelle, Sion, Switzerland. Two volumes, 1240 + 1288 pages, CD-ROM. ISBN 2-88426-021-8. $476 for the set or each component can be purchased separately (Volume 1, Cloth, $238.00; Volume 2, Cloth, $251.00; CD-ROM, $338.00).—This monumental work deals not with scientific names or “Linnaean” nomenclature, but with names for birds that exist in other than the scientific idiom—the so-called “common” or “folk” names for birds. The first volume is a compilation of such names for all of the species of European and Middle Eastern birds, plus a few others that are almost universally known, such as the domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) and the Ostrich (Struthio camelus). Unfortunately, the introductory material does not clearly state or list which languages are included, but most of them appear in the list of abbreviations. Names for birds have been sought in Indo-European languages including “Iranian, Caucasian, and Hamito-Semitic languages” because “the area covered by these languages includes the Palaearctic region, a zoogeographical entity within which can be found most of the European bird species….” Names in Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are omitted because they are not Indo-European languages. Names from languages written with different alphabet characters, such as Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Greek, are transliterated with Roman characters.

The first volume proceeds species by species, with each account consisting of a list of names, given language by language, arranged in a geographical sequence more or less from the northwest (British Isles) to the south and east. All names that the author could discover are presented along with information on the counties or provinces in which each name, no matter how local, is used. The amount of detail is staggering. The section on names for the Magpie (Pica pica), for example, comprises 13 pages, of which more than 6 deal only with names used in Germany.

Being Swiss, with an interest in etymology, Desfayes naturally has several languages at his command and has written his book using more than one. In the species accounts, explanatory remarks are generally in French, except for names from the British Isles, for which English is used. Remarks about German names seem to be in either German or English. Definitions in Volume Two may be in either English or French. Anyone who is linguistically challenged would have considerable difficulty using this work, but would have little need for it in any case.

The second volume is less easily characterized. About two-thirds of it consists of what Desfayes refers to as his “paradigms” (Appendices 3–14). Here, names or the words used in names, along with various cognates (or perhaps pseudocognates), are arranged according to qualities, somewhat in the manner of the familiar Roget's Thesaurus of English words. The major groupings include terms of chromatic origin (e.g. red, dark, spotted), morphological (e.g. tall, tufted, swollen), acoustic (mostly onomatopoetic), kinetic (e.g. fly, wag, dive), and others.

The ultimate subheadings are combinations of sounds used in words that Desfayes identifies as being related to a given quality. Thus, section is a list of words that contain the sounds “r–p” and mean “red”, including the Greek, Latin, English, Czech and other words for turnip (rapys, rapa, rape, repka). The list also contains a Russian word for menstrues (repaki), Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Ukranian and other words for linnet, robin, and whinchat (repka, rzepoluch, repel, repalsic), and a French word for the caruncles of a turkey (roupie), among others.

There are fascinating diversions to be encountered here. For example, we learn that the traditional (and believable) derivation of “belladonna” is folk etymology, and that “mayonnaise,” according to Desfayes, is related to words meaning flecked or spotted, and is not derived from the siege of Port Mahón, Minorca, as given in many etymologies. These paradigms will be of as much interest to philologists and ethnolinguists as they may be to ornithologists. That great erudition, maybe even genius, has been exercised in their compilation is scarcely to be doubted, though I cannot shake off the impression that they may reflect considerable idiosyncrasy as well.

The second volume also contains various other lists of bird names, including those in ancient languages, words for nests, eggs, and bats, terms used in falconry, and bird names from “overseas francophone countries” and Latin America.

There is no index, because this would have added more than 700 pages to the work. The CD-ROM, therefore, is an absolute necessity. If, for example, one encountered an unknown word for some European bird and wanted to know to what species it applied, there would be no practical way to find it without searching the text with a computer. I have little doubt that it would be found, however. Michel Desfayes has presented us with a labor of love of such scope as to leave thoughtful reviewers with a lingering sense of their own deficiencies.

Storrs L. Olson "A Thesaurus of Bird Names: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms," The Auk 118(3), 815-816, (1 July 2001).[0815:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2001
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