Levin: Naming Honors

Jun 19, 2019

At the top of my recommended summer reading list is a book called Mrs. Moreau's Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, by Stephen Moss. For a life-long naturalist like me, it's a treasure trove of linguistic history and trivia.

I love knowing that the Blackburnian warbler, an attractive, thin-voiced songbird, isn't named for its black and orange coloration - but instead, for Anna Blackburn, an amateur British ornithologist. And who would guess that the name goose is the oldest known English bird name still in use, dating back five thousand years to Proto-Indo European spoken on the steppes of central Asia?

The black-capped chickadee's name is a transliteration of its call, chick-a-dee-dee-dee, and every bit as onomatopoetic as the calls - and names - of the cuckoo and the whip-poor-will. And the name raven invaded England with the Anglo-Saxons, having crossed the channel from Germany more than fifteen hundred years ago.

Perhaps my favorite nugget in the book is about the author Ian Fleming. I'd heard that Fleming, the creator of the famous fictional double-agent, had visited Enosburg Falls and even placed one of his books, For Your Eyes Only, partly in Vermont. So I was amused to read that when Fleming was writing the book Casino Royale in 1953, he wanted a bland name for the protagonist, a man to whom things happened.

Fleming thought one of the dullest names he'd ever heard belonged to the American ornithologist James Bond, author of The Birds of the West Indies, so he appropriated the name. He later apologized to Mrs. Bond, saying, “Your husband has every reason to sue me for practically every kind of libel.” He then offered the unlimited use of his own name in return, and concluded, “Perhaps one day [your husband] will discover some particularly horrible species of bird, which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.”

Mrs. Moreau's Warbler also reaches into the twenty-first century, with the story of a black and white sea duck, now known as the Long-tailed duck, which regularly visits Lake Champlain en route to the Arctic. Once known as Oldsquaw, it's the only bird to have had its name officially changed for political correctness.