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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Saturday, December 13, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Calling birds

http://www.peterward.info/Images/illustration/illustrationtwelvedays/maintwelvedays/mainfourcallingbirds.jpg 

"Bird" in Old English meant only the young of feathered creatures, like "kitten" for cats. The generic word for feathered things was "fowl". By about Chaucer's time "bird" was being used to mean not only young fowl, but also small adult fowl, until finally it supplanted "fowl" almost entirely. For a while before this happened, "bird" was also used for the young of other animals and even of humans. In fact, it was a quite respectful synonym for a young girl. So we have a 1300s quotation referring to the Virgin Mary as a "bird". Quite incongruous to our ears! 

As well as changing in meaning, "bird" changed in form. Originally the word was "brid". But, just as "thrid" became "third" by metathesis (for more on this, see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/04/friday-threeteenth.html), "brid" was metathesized into "bird" in the north of England and gradually worked its way down to the south, taking over by about 1400.

In the Christmas carol, the "calling" birds were originally "colly" birds, meaning they were black. This word derived from "coal", originally designating something black with coal dust or soot. 


For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-french-hens.html

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:
http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/12-days-of-wordlady-partridge.html


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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.