What's in a name? The legacy and lexicon of birds

The study of folk names can tell us a huge amount about historic relationships between people and nature. The thousands of English folk names recorded for British bird species show impressive creativity but, more than that, they can be used to track changes in distribution and abundance, and offer a hint of how birds were perceived by people in the past. Andy Gosler provides an introduction to some of the wonderful English folk names for birds, and explains what we can learn from these.

Horse-matcher, sally-wren and cold arse bird are just a few of more than 7,000 English folk names for about 150 British bird species collated by Swiss naturalist-etymologist Michel Desfayes. Volume 1 of his two-volume A Thesaurus of Bird Names: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms, published in 1998, lists more than 100,000 European folk names in more than 11 European languages.

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