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Friday, June 5, 2020

Budgies and parakeets

I had one of those "What? Americans don't say that?" moments this week when reading Lynne Murphy's excellent blog about the differences between British and American English, where she asserts

But there is a meaning difference for parakeet. AmE uses that name for the little birds that are kept as pets, what BrE (and some US pet bird enthusiasts) call budgerigars or budgies, for short.

Whaaaaat?  No budgies in the US? I had no idea. I am pretty sure that "budgie" is the common name in Canada, rather than "parakeet".

A corpus search does indeed reveal a relative dearth of budgies in the US, compared to Canada and other English-speaking countries.

If you are Canadian or American, please let me know what you call this bird**.

Budgie dates from the 1930s, while its parent, "budgerigar", was a mid 19th-century Australian borrowing of Aboriginal origin, perhaps an alteration of gijirrigaa, the bird's name in Kamilaroi (the language of an Indigenous Australian people whose lands extend from New South Wales to southern Queensland). A budgerigar is a kind of parakeet (a small parrot):

a small gregarious Australian parakeet which is green with a yellow head in the wild. It is popular as a cage bird and has been bred in a variety of colours.

I have always loved it when dictionaries use the word "gregarious" in fauna definitions. I can't help having images of the budgies getting together with their pals for a tea party.

"Parakeet", on the other hand, is a mid 16th-century borrowing from Old French paroquet, Italian parrocchetto, and Spanish periquito; its origin is uncertain, perhaps (via Italian) based on a diminutive meaning ‘little wig’, referring to head plumage, or (via Spanish) based on a diminutive of the given name Pedro.

Now, I know that if I don't head you off at the pass, some of you are going to mention in the comments or in emails a famous Australianism / New Zealandism:

budgie smugglers

plural noun

informal Australian, New Zealand

Men's brief, tight-fitting swimming trunks. [what other varieties of English call "Speedos"]

‘Tarzan, as we dubbed him, took to wearing the tiniest pair of purple budgie smugglers while sunbathing on his corrugated iron roof

The OED, which dates this term from 1998, explains its etymology primly thus:

With reference to the appearance of the male genitals in figure-hugging trunks.

Here's a picture if you lack imagination.

"Parakeet smuggler" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

**By the way, it was lovely hearing from so many of you about "chesterfield" and your linguistic bios. It would seem that "chesterfield" is still alive and well among the over-seventies. So not dead! But it certainly has faded away amongst those younger than that.
Those in their forties, fifties and sixties reported "I used that as a kid, or my parents used it, but sometime in the 1970s/80s I switched over to couch or sofa."
There is a furniture chain in greater Toronto called The Chesterfield Shop. According to their website it is, tellingly, "a family-owned furniture store since 1948", but, equally tellingly, the tabs on their website are for "sofas" and "sofa beds".  So I think "chesterfield" in their name is a kind of fossil.

Budgie photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash
Swimmer photo by Mika on Unsplash


  1. Budgie!
    Our gardener always comes to work in budgie smugglers and all the women in the street come out to watch (true, you could not make it up)<

  2. Always parakeet for this USian. I think I was in my 30s before I heard "budgie." Also, that second picture is slangily a "banana hammock." 😂😂😂

  3. Parakeet but I've only been living in Toronto for 47 yrs. (born s. of the border)

  4. When my son attended Montessori School in the late nineties it was considered a privilege to be able to take home the class bird for the summer holidays. I am sure that the teachers were aware that the bird would be cared for exclusively by a five year old. Smiles. He was made aware on the last day of school before the holidays that the bird had a thoracic tumour. Too late to turn back now. So - the bird received palliative care during the summer months and seemed fairly happy until one morning we found him beak down in his water bowl. We arranged a fitting farewell in our backyard with tributes, songs and a hand painted rock as a marker. Children in the neighbourhood attended the reception and we all said farewell to Mr. Budgie the budgie.

  5. Budgie. I've always wondered what a parakeet was! :)

  6. I say budgie. But I was born in the UK so..
    I have to say I had never heard of "budgie smugglers" before.
    It made me laugh so much that I choked on my cuppa tea!

  7. My mother and grandmother, of British extraction always called them budgies. We also used couch for the chesterfield (despite the british heritage). There is also considerable debate around bureau, dresser, etc.

  8. Definitely a budgie to me, a 65-plusser who has always lived in Ontario. I'm not sure I could identify a parakeet, but in my mind's eye it's a larger bird.

  9. To this bird-loving Canadian, a budgie has always been one of many species of small parrots known as parakeets. Before reading your post, I had no idea that Americans call budgies parakeets.

  10. Budgies. Every time I've read Americans talking about their parakeets, I've assumed they meant parrots. -Kate in Saskatchewan


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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.