What’s in a (Bird) Name part 3: Grammartifices and What Part of “English” Names do I not Understand?

Steve N. G. Howell

You can find part 1 of this three part series hereand part 2 here.

“Pedants Rule” – or, to be more accurate, exhibit certain of the trappings of traditional regal leadership. It’s easy to quibble about English bird names that are inappropriate for any number of reasons (see Parts 1 and 2), and we didn’t even enter the quagmire of colorblind ornithologists: A male Cinnamon Teal is chestnut (not cinnamon), male Purple Finches aren’t really purple, and so on. Here I conclude this irreverent ramble with some observations on the pedant’s pedestal of grammar.

Hyphen-ventilating and more…

I think I understand the principle of using hyphens and capital letters in English bird names such as Black-crowned Night-Heron and (South) American Painted-snipe. In these examples, the night-heron is a true heron (with a capital H) whereas the painted-snipe is not a true snipe (hence the lower-case snipe).

In other cases, however, hyphenated compound names are supposed to reflect relatedness. That is, the hyphenated species are more closely related to one another than to other species. Hence hyphenated American Golden-Plover is supposedly more closely related to hyphenated European Golden-Plover than either is to non-hyphenated Black-bellied Plover. The capital P indicates they are “true” plovers, although recent genetic work suggests that large plovers should be placed into their own family, distinct from small plovers – and then, which ones are the “true” Plovers an which are “false” plovers?

Exponentially increasing numbers of genetic studies these days are overturning so many of our preconceived notions. Think of the genera of wood-warblers, or any number of other things (Old World and New World pigeons, and nightjars, and small owls, and finches, and so on…). Might European Golden-Plover in fact be more closely related to Black-bellied Plover? Is Common Black-Hawk really more closely related to Great Black-Hawk (as implied by an arbitrary hyphen) than either is to Solitary Eagle? And so on. At this point, if you’re not confused then clearly you don’t understand what is going on…

A Common Black Hawk or, if you think this is closely related to Great Black Hawk, then add a hyphen to both as an educated (?) guess, and you now have Common Black-Hawk. Editors just love such grammatical caprice! Yucatán, Mexico (or Yucatan, México?), Dec 2007. © Steve N. G. Howell

A Common Black Hawk or, if you think this is closely related to Great Black Hawk, then add a hyphen to both as an educated (?) guess, and you now have Common Black-Hawk. Editors just love such grammatical caprice! Yucatán, Mexico (or Yucatan, México?), Dec 2007. © Steve N. G. Howell

Basically, many hyphens in English bird names (at least in the world of the American Ornithologists’ Union, or AOU) seem set to stand as quaint historical reminders of what we once believed about the relationships among various species. While the AOU struggles to maintain its status quo of ignorance and inconsistency, other bodies are realizing that the use of hyphens in English names is often nothing more than a confusing distraction. For a succinct discussion of hyphens, and why usually they are not needed, check out the following link, and the link within it: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/english-names/spelling-rules/compound-names/

Politically Correct is Neither

Some of us may have thought, understandably, that English names are, well, English. Yet we’d be wrong, at least some of the time. On our side, Montezuma is the generally accepted English misspelling of the Aztec emperor’s name, which in Mexico is spelled Moctezuma. I’m unsure, however, why it isn’t Montezuma’s Quail rather than Montezuma Quail, at least if the AOU were to be consistent. Then again, many years ago English bird names lacked the ’s ending, as in Anna Hummingbird rather than Anna’s Hummingbird. I mean, the bird is named for Anna, not owned by Anna, yet the latter is what is implied (mistakenly) by the possessive apostrophe.

Think of names like Jefferson County, Washington Monument, or even Disney Channel. It’s not Washington’s Monument (like Washington’s horse) or Disney’s Channel. As Ted Floyd has argued elsewhere (check: http://listserv.arizona.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1002b&L=birdchat&P=3192), the AOU approach to the ’s is simply fussy, antiquated, and wrong. But then would we return to having to write “Nesting of the Anna Hummingbird” instead of “Nesting of Anna’s Hummingbird”? Some editors even today retain the “doubly correct” (or do two positives make a negative?) form, as in “Nesting of the Anna’s Hummingbird” – a rather formal and antiquated-sounding construction.

A few years ago these would have been simply two Canada Geese, or Canadian Geese as many non-birders still call them. Now, instead of having a Honking Goose and a Cackling Goose (or a Greater Canada Goose and Lesser Canada Goose), one of them is still a plain ol’ Canada Goose… Go figure. Marin County, California, Nov 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell

A few years ago these would have been simply two Canada Geese, or Canadian Geese as many non-birders still call them. Now, instead of having a Honking Goose and a Cackling Goose (or a Greater Canada Goose and Lesser Canada Goose), one of them is still a plain ol’ Canada Goose… Go figure. Marin County, California, Nov 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell

Then there was a period when Ross’s Gull and similar names were written as Ross’ Gull, which to my eyes is more pleasing to read. In such cases there are no rights and wrongs, just opinions, but at least the constant fiddling changes give book and journal editors something to do.

Oh, and then for a while there was a move by some to include “foreign” accents in English names, as in Yucatán Wren. Thankfully this silliness has passed – what part of English names do committees not understand? Well, the “English” part, apparently…

A notable exception to the idea that English bird names should be English can be found in Hawaii. I confess it is not entirely clear to me why it is considered appropriate to honor non-English-speaking Polynesians who spread like a plague across the Pacific, exterminating (albeit unwittingly) as they went more species of birds than during any other period of human history. But at least now we have all sorts of unpronounceable and basically meaningless “English” bird names, like Nukupuu or Apapane.

The English name Bermuda Petrel probably conveys some information to most people, birders at least – it’s a petrel that occurs (breeds?) in Bermuda. The local island name of Cahow has been used by some as the “proper” English name, but is essentially meaningless to almost every speaker of the English language. However, at least Cahow is an English name, unlike all those unpronounceable Hawaiian (= Polynesian) names. Off Hatteras, North Carolina, May 2009. © Steve N. G. Howell

The English name Bermuda Petrel probably conveys some information to most people, birders at least – it’s a petrel that occurs (breeds?) in Bermuda. The local island name of Cahow has been used by some as the “proper” English name, but is essentially meaningless to almost every speaker of the English language. However, at least Cahow is an English name, unlike all those unpronounceable Hawaiian (= Polynesian) names. Off Hatteras, North Carolina, May 2009. © Steve N. G. Howell

And then there’s the illogic between Canada (not Canadian?) Warbler and Mexican (Mexico?) Chickadee, or California (Californian?) Condor and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, etc, etc, etc… Apparently the memo about nouns and adjectives got muddled somewhere along the way, or would somebody like to advocate logic and rules for such seemingly linguistic chaos? I’d bet there’s some pedant out there who would like to explain all this. But does it really matter?

Congratulations if you made it this far. If nothing else you have gained an insight into why English is such a difficult second (or even first!) language to learn – when supposedly educated native speakers use it with such arbitrary abandon and inconsistency…

Why Montezuma Quail and not Montezuma’s Quail, or even Moctezuma Quail? Inconsistency and illogic are what make English such a great language – and one perfect for naming birds! Chihuahua, Mexico, Aug 2013. ☺ Steve N. G. Howell

Why Montezuma Quail and not Montezuma’s Quail, or even Moctezuma Quail? Inconsistency and illogic are what make English such a great language – and one perfect for naming birds! Chihuahua, Mexico, Aug 2013. ☺ Steve N. G. Howell