April 04, 2014

Rephrasing: The Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe
Cute, in spite of distant-cropped photo 

I have long thought that the most awkwardly-named bird in North America has to be the Pied-billed Grebe. Pied. -billed. Grebe. It just doesn't roll off the tongue to me. The bird could have been called the Carolina Grebe and we'd be done, but somehow we got stuck with Pied-billed. The first time I saw it in my guide, I was sure I had read it wrong (and many people do get it wrong). It just feels so odd to me with the double ‘-ed’ adjectives and, to be totally honest, I'm not even sure I really knew what information this name was trying to convey the first time I saw it. Whatever my reasons, they made me want to look into how such a cute little bird ended up with such a strange name, so I dove into the etymological pond of this bird’s English name and it's actually fairly interesting. This may end up being a little convoluted (particularly with all the related information I came across), but I will take a stab at bringing some concision to it all.

Eurasian Magpie
'I don't know which of us should be more insulted.'
It all starts with pie. Back in the early-13th century pie was simply the name for the Magpie - “Mag” was added around three hundred years later, a nickname for Margaret (or Maggie) and commonly used in a derogatory sense for certain traits associated with women, such as loud chattering, for instance. But originally, that familiar European corvid, Pica pica, was known as a Pie.

In the late-14th century, we gained the word ‘pied’ as an adjective to describe something of two colours, typically white and black (some sources say it was also a past participle of a verb form of pie -- I suppose as in “Franz Kline really pied that canvas.”). In fact, the first known usage of pied was in reference to the pyed freres, an order of friars who wore black-and-white robes. It’s meaning would later expand to include anything multicoloured such as pied court jesters and the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Eurasian Magpie
Pie in the sky

Bald Eagle
Bald, not bald.
Later on, in the 1580s, we gained the term piebald, a word that has fallen somewhat out of fashion around here today, typically used to refer to an animal with a mix of unpigmented (white) and pigmented (black) fur, skin or feathers. Sidenote: there is also another term, skewbald, for animals that are white and a colour other than black. These terms may be familiar to people who know their horses; they are still used today in the UK, while in North America we use pinto with the horse’s colour as a modifier (e.g. “bay pinto”).

To continue this minor digression, piebald is formed from that original use of pie, referring to the mottled look of the Magpie with its black-and-white colouration, and bald, from its Middle English/Celtic root ballede meaning white or 'white patch', most commonly used to describe the blaze on a horse in the old days. I would be a poor bird blog writer if, at this point, I failed to note that it is from this meaning of bald that the Bald Eagle gets its name. So in examining the meaning of our grebe's name we get references to the origins of two other bird names.

At the beginning of this post, I felt the double -ed adjective felt a bit awkward, but perhaps I was just being closed-minded. I have also kind of thought that the bill doesn't look all that pied -- really it just looks like a single black ring around the bill to me -- I suppose it's basically black-and-white, though, and that's all you need to call it pied.
The bottom line: if I've learned anything in the three years I've been studying birds, it's knowing when to stop looking for sense in all this nonsense and just admire the bird.

Pied-billed Grebe
Slightly submerged, still a beauty.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff....I love this kind of information. Besides being curious myself, it helps me to remember the birds. Thanks.