November 24, 2004

Making up names

Geoff Pullum, citing his invention of the term "California bluebush" as a model, suggests that the Inuit have plenty of resources at their disposal for naming newly-encountered species like robins. Geoff mentions the "redbreast" part of "robin redbreast" in comparison, and in an earlier post he discussed the extension of the word robin to a new bird in the New World; but he might also have cited the development of the original term robin itself, which is apparently an innovation in English, certainly since the Norman conquest, and probably within the past 500 years, not long before the English first came to North America.

Robin was "a dim. or familiar form of the personal name Robert" in Old French, according to the OED, and came to be used "in more or less allusive or general application", something like Joe in today's America. We have "Joe Six-pack", "Joe College", "Joe Bloggs", "joe-pye weed", "a cup of joe", "sloppy joe" and the like; a few hundred years ago, the English had "poor Robin", "jolly Robin", "ragged robin" (= "herb robert"), "robin-in-the-hedge" (another plant), "round robin", "Robin the devil", "cock Robin", "Robin Round-cap", "Robin Run-rake" and so forth.

Robin Red-breast was just another of these coinages, used since about 1450 to name a commonplace bird. And as applied to birds, robin was such a generic term that (according to the OED) it has variously been used for the European redbreast Erithacus rubecula, for the linnet Carduelis cannabina (as in Frisian robyntsje), for the (American) red-breasted thrush Turdus migratorius, for birds of the genus Miro in New Zealand, for species of Petroica in Australia, for the green tody in Jamaica, and also applied "to the red-breasted snipe and merganser, and to the mouse-bird or coly".

Among other modified bird-names involving robin are the "blue robin, the bluebird, Sialia sialis; golden robin, the Baltimore oriole; Indian robin ...; magpie robin ...; yellow robin ...; etc." Abandoning its usual exhaustiveness, the OED suggests plaintively: "For an enumeration of the various Australian birds thus named see Morris Austral English 390-1."

Encountering new species in their travels, speakers of English have managed to cope without noticeable strain. Encountering new species brought to their territory by climate change, the Inuit will no doubt find words for them as well, as they have found words for guitars, rifles, snowmobiles and the like.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 24, 2004 09:38 AM