Thursday, 4 February 2010

What's in a name

I have been leafing through the new edition of my favoured bird guide, a publication that will accompany me on my birdwatching trips around the county. I hope that it will serve me as well as the battered copy of the first edition that it is now replacing. The book contains new information and so recognises new species, created where previously recognised races have been split into two. So now, for example, I have Yellow-legged and Caspian Gull. Annoyingly, for me at least, the guide contains some of the creeping changes in bird names that seems to come from an increasing Americanisation of our language. Gone are the Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers, the ‘Diver’ now replaced by ‘Loon’. I cannot imagine any birdwatcher I know referring to the ‘Great Northern Loon’ at Whittlingham Country Park. At least the authors have not gone as far as those of a bird list that I saw recently; they’d replaced Common Gull with ‘Mew Gull’ and the term ‘Skua’ with ‘Jaeger’!

Somebody suggested that standardising the English names in this way is a sensible approach, enabling our New World cousins to understand which species we are writing or talking about. My natural response to this is that we already have names in place that enable those working on birds, in whichever country, to understand which species we mean. These are the Scientific names, based on the binomial system devised by Linnaeus.

Of course, such changes are not new and if you browse through bird guides from generations past, you will see many other examples of bird names that have changed. The Yellow Bunting of 1943 is now the Yellowhammer, the Hedge Sparrow is now Dunnock or Hedge Accentor and, going back further, the Red-breast is now the Robin. This last change of name is particularly interesting as the ‘Robin’ bit in ‘Robin Red-breast’ was a sort of country or folk name, in much the same way as some people refer to ‘Jenny Wren’. Imagine if we started calling the Wren, the ‘Jenny’!

I am often struck by how much more charm there is in the local names of birds than in many of the common names that we use at the national level. The ‘bee bird’ for Spotted Flycatcher is one of my favourite local Norfolk names but there are others: Bunt Lark (Corn Bunting), Blood Olp (Bullfinch – derived from ‘alpe’, the oldest known name for this bird and used by Chaucer) and the Sea Dotterel (Turnstone) are just three of many.

Whatever your views, names remain important because they enable us to communicate about these creatures and share our passions for the natural world.

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