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Do birds and fowls fly?

By Anatoly Liberman


An etymologist is constantly on the lookout for so-called motivation. Why is a cat called cat, and why do English speakers say tree if the Romans called the same object arbor? As everybody knows, the “ultimate truth” usually escapes us. Once upon a time (about five thousand or even more years ago?) in a hotly debated locality there lived the early Indo-Europeans, and we still use words going back to their partly unpronounceable sound complexes. Close to the end of the nineteenth century, some brave scholars traced Engl. girl to the Indo-European form ghwerghu. The word sounds like something invented by Jonathan Swift, but even if it ever existed (I hope it never did) and could be whispered by a loving mother in addressing her baby girl, we would still not know why just this combination of consonants and vowels designated a female child.

My immediate concern in this post is the origin of the word fowl – not because it is such an important word but because attempts to find its “motivation” are instructive. In the past, fowl had the form fugol and meant “bird.” Dutch and German vogel ~ Vogel have retained the old meaning, and their Scandinavian cognates sound very much like fugol (compare Old Icelandic fugl). Engl. bird has no cognates either in Germanic or outside it and is usually dismissed in dictionaries as a word of unknown origin, though conjectures on its etymology abound. If my reconstruction is right, bridd “young bird” (such are the oldest attested form and sense of bird) meant “a born creature; animal” and is related to Engl. birth and Scots birky “child; fellow.” But why fugol was pushed from the center of the vocabulary to its periphery remains an unsolved mystery and in a way, the demotion of an old respectable word is a greater riddle than the emergence of bridd/bird. In present day English, fowl occurs mainly in connection with edible birds. However, such phrases as the fowls of the air (admittedly archaic), water fowl, and especially the alliterating triad neither fish, flesh, nor fowl (often reduced to neither fish nor fowl), remind us of the ancient sense of this noun.

Strangely, in many languages, the word for “bird” defies etymologists. Such is, among many others, Latin avis. The most appealing connection seems to be between avis “bird” and ovum “egg,” but it has been called into question, and for good reason. I cannot resist the temptation of quoting a line from Henry Cecil Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language, which I often use and like very much: “…it is doubtful whether ‘egg’ or ‘bird’ is the primary meaning of the base” (the entry ovum; the reconstructed base, or root, is ówjon, in which both vowels are long). This is what editors sometimes call unconscious humor. While stating his opinion, Wyld did not hear that he rephrased the famous question about the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?

The story I decided to tell today has an important point, namely that the words for “bird” and “fly” are very seldom related. The case of Finnish lintu “bird” and lentää “fly” is an exception. And yet we define bird as a flying animal! Almost as though to mock us, in English a flying animal is the fly, not the bird (the same happens in German: fliegen and Fliege; English lost endings long ago, and that is why the noun and the verb are now homonyms). As a general rule, the two words have nothing in common: compare Latin avis “bird” and volare “to fly” (French oiseau and voler), Russian ptitsa (we will make use of it later) and letet’ (stress on the second syllable), Hungarian madár and szállni. Strange as it may seem, to our remote ancestors flying did not seem to be the most conspicuous feature of birds. Perhaps it happened because all kinds of insects also have wings or because the world of the ancients was thickly populated by supernatural flying creatures, as we know from the mythology of all races and the presence of angels in Christian tradition.

In this light it is instructive to observe how etymologists tried to explain the Germanic word for “fowl.” The reconstructed principal parts of the verb fly are fleugan—flaug (preterit singular)—flugun (preterit plural)—flugnaz (past, or perfect, participle). All strong verbs had four principal parts, a system of which Engl. be—was—were—been reminds us to this day. Allegedly, the noun fowl (traceable to fuglaz) derives from a form having the same structure as flugnaz (it is given in bold above). According to an old and attractive etymology, codified in the most authoritative dictionaries of the not too remote past, the form fuglaz developed from fluglaz, in which the first l was lost because of dissimilation, a common process in human speech (here, of two l’s in succession the first supposedly dropped out). If we look at the history of the English verb fledge, we will see that it goes back to fluggja. The German adjective flügge “fledged” and its Old English cognate reproduce fluggja almost to a letter. Old English also had the adjective flugol “fleeing.” The words for “fowl” and “fly” sounded so much alike that in the late history of German Gegel “fowl” (collective) became Geflügel.

However, fluglaz has not been recorded, and, as noted, people did not seem to think that flying distinguished birds strongly enough to serve as the “motivation” for their name. The fuglaz/fluglaz etymology has been all but abandoned. In the more recent dictionaries one can read that the Indo-European root of fowl, from fuglaz, was pu- (because in the Germanic languages f corresponds to non-Germanic p, as in father ~ pater), known from Latin puer “boy,” pullus “hen,” putila “little bird,” many other similar words, and, surprisingly to the uninitiated, Russian ptitsa “bird,” mentioned above (it once had a kind of i between p and t). All of them denote small creatures. If fuglaz belongs with them, it must have had the sense “birdie.” But of course there is -g- (some suffix of unclear meaning) and -l- (a diminutive suffix?) before the ending -az. This is not a shining etymology, but perhaps it is better than the one that depends on the unrecorded form fluglaz.

An extension of the pu- etymology has been offered in Slavic studies and remained unnoticed by Germanic researchers. I cannot vouch for its correctness. My aim is to let it leave the obscurity of Russian publications. Early German vogel ~ fugel meant “embryonic spot in an egg.” This meaning may have been secondary and arisen when it was recorded but may have only surfaced so late. O. N. Trubachëv (it rhymes with Gorbachev; stress on the last syllable), the main Russian etymologist of the last fifty years (he died not too long ago), compared German vogel ~ fugel, Russian dialectal puga “the larger end of the egg” (I am sorry to conjure Swift’s spirit again), and both of them with Greek pygé “buttocks.” If puga ~ pygé are related to fowl, from fuglaz, this circumstance can breathe new life into the discussion of an old problem, and then, much to our joy, the bird and the egg will meet again.

The pictures below will convince the skeptics that birds, unlike the best etymologies, indeed do not fly.

Ostrich versus emu. Who can fly?

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: Ostrich (Struthio camelus) at Colchester Zoo. Photo by Keven Law. Creative Commons License. Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) in Texas. Photo by Jak via Wikimedia Commons.

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6 Responses to “Do birds and fowls fly?”
  1. Annie Morgan says:

    That one left me breathless – truly! I found I was holding my breath from detail to detail it was so fascinating. Such enjoyment first thing in the morning surely does set up the day!!

  2. Cameron Majidi says:

    The word for bird in modern Persian does refer to the capacity to fly. The word is “parande” and would be construed as something like “leaper” or “springer” if it weren’t a common noun. As with English “fowl” there’s a secondary old word for bird “morgh” that is now generally limited to domesticated birds (chicken in particular). The older more general usage of ‘morgh’ can be seen in the name of the mythic creature the Simurgh, which was featured in epic poems by Ferdowsi and Attar.

  3. Yes, that theory about ‘fowl’ being derived for “fluglaz” is strictly for the birds.

  4. Some small remarks:
    1. It is quite clear that lat. ôvum is a derivation from avis (not the other way round), regardless the exact and disputed preform (either Vrddhi: PIE *h2owi- [with o-grade that later was given up] –> *h2ôwjo- or with Schindler as compositional form *ô-h2wjo-).
    2. The verb PG. *flewge/a- didn’t mean ‘to fly’, but ‘to float’ and could be used for both moving through air and water.
    3. The lat. words puer and pullus/putilla are not related; puer < *ph2u-ero- pullus < *put-slo-, putilla, derived from putus < *put-o-. To the latter also seems to belong russ. ptitsa.

    So it can, when at all, only belong to the puer-word. This is related to lat. pauper 'poor', so shows a root PIE (e-grade) *peh2u- / (zero-grade) *ph2u-. When the PG *fugla- belongs here, it could continue a PIE *ph2u-kló- (*ph2u-ghlo- is not worth considering). The problem with this is the difficulty to identify a suffix *-klo- outside Latin (in Latin it is derived from *-tlo-). Also the semantics are (at least a bit) unclear, because the root *peh2u- means 'little' (*ph2u-klo- 'the little one?').

    So the reasons for not putting PG *fugla- to *flewge/a- are in my opinion not very compelling, even more the relationship is possible as the Finnic example shows.

    In the end for everybody: Just try to say *fluglaz flewgeþ(i) – the dissimilation to *fuglaz flewgeþ(i) will become very obvious :D

  5. [...] some time I have fought a trench war, trying to prove that fowl and fly are not connected. The pictures of an emu and an ostrich appended to the original post were expected to clinch the [...]

  6. [...] Fowl and dog. I agree that no facts militate against connecting fowl with fly. But is this enough for the onus probandi? Unfortunately, facts supporting the derivation of fowl from fly are also absent. The question should, of necessity, remain open. As for dog, I, naturally, have read the relevant article in Indogermanische Forschungen (naturally, because I regularly follow the main publications for my database and later try to catch up with the less visible journals). The hypothesis suggested there is one of many. Perhaps it solves the problem, and perhaps it does not. The other words of the same type (pig, stag, frog, and one or two others) are also obscure, as is, incidentally, fox. The Indo-European root of hound is reconstructible, but its meaning is not. We can only say that people called the dog a “dog.” [...]

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