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Now in the field with a fieldfare

Last week, I wrote about the troublesome origin of heifer. The oldest recorded form of heifer is HEAHFORE. In Old English, o and a alternated rather freely before r, so that the last element of heahfore might be –fore or –fare. My previous post dealt mainly with the enigmatic element heah-, and I promised to return to the equally enigmatic- fore. I even wrote that perhaps the etymology of the bird name fieldfare would throw additional light on heifer. Birds often follow herds of cattle for sustenance, so that my idea is, on the face of it, not unreasonable. Just for those who may be not quite sure what bird a fieldfare is, let me explain: it is a thrush (and see the header).

The earliest attestations of the word (1100) pose some problems. Moreover, since all kinds of forms of fieldfare appear in modern dialects, we cannot know which one is “correct,” that is, initial, original. Chaucer pronounced feldefare in four syllables. Regardless of such complications, the bird’s name seems to be in some way connected with field. I say cautiously “seems to be,” because feolo– also occurred as the first element of the compound. Etymologists who relied on feolo– offered a derivation that has nothing to do with field-. Yet Old English feldefare looks like the best form to work with, and we’ll stay with it. Most modern scholars understand the word as “field-farer.” This interpretation poses the natural question whether fieldfares are known for a specific way of crossing or traversing fields. They are not. Despite the support of some of the most authoritative dictionaries, –fare in this word has probably nothing to do with “faring.”

Two bird names may be relevant for chasing the fieldfare: one is Old English scealfor “diver, cormorant,” the other Dutch ooievaar “stork.” That old word for “stork” has not continued into Present-day English. Yet it has a Modern Dutch cognate, namely schollevaar. I have highlighted –for and –vaar, because it is my hope that they will tell us something about –fare in fieldfare. However, my optimism is restrained, because, as I have written more than once, an etymologically obscure word cannot furnish a reliable clue to another equally obscure one. Knowing all that, I still hope that it may be better for the dubious group to stay together than die in isolation.

A stork in its natural habitat. (Image by Leszek Leszczynski via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Ooievaar has been discussed many times. It has a close look-alike in German, namely, Adebar “stork.” At first sight, ade– does not correspond to ooie– (in fact, they do), but the second elements match well. Our great teacher Jacob Grimm thought that Adebar goes back to some form like Gothic uddjabaira or addja-baira “egg carrier” (ai has the value of short e here), with reference to the widespread belief that storks bring luck and to the custom of telling children that babies are brought by storks. He compared his uddja– with uterus (-baira was of course supposed to be related to the verb bear); the Germanic word auda– “luck” also comes to mind. Grimm’s explanation of Adebar dominated German and Dutch dictionaries for ninety years. Friedrich Kluge, the author of the greatest etymological dictionary of German, first shared this interpretation but later made rather unsuccessful attempts to modify it.

There is little doubt that even a thousand years ago, the German-Dutch (and we should add, Frisian) name of the stork was as impenetrable to speakers as it is to us (which testifies to the word’s antiquity; freshly minted words are more often transparent). Last week, I said the same about English heifer. Such opaque words often fall victim to folk etymology (compare the trite example of asparagus becoming sparrow grass) or keep changing in unpredictable directions. I’ll pass by several fanciful (even bizarre) old conjectures about the history of this word and leave out a few dubious interpretations of ooie– ~ Ader-, because the first component seems to have been explained correctly (see below) and because here I am interested only in the possible congeners of –fare in fieldfare.

The best image of an elver we could find. (Image by Peter Harrison via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In 1938, Willy Krogmann, a serious etymologist, disposed of the luck idea and explained that the root of ooievaar ~ Adebar meant “wetland,” but he failed to discover the origin of –vaar ~ -bar. He conceded that, whatever the meaning of that element might be, it was later reinterpreted as –bar “carrier.” No such process can, however, be reconstructed for the Dutch word. Before returning to my idea that –fore ~ -fare was some sort of suffix, occasinally used in animal names, I would like to mention the little-known English noun elver “young eel” (first recorded in 1640), a variant of eelfare “brood of young eels.”

This suffix –fore, I believe, meant “in the presence of, in front of” and can be seen in Old English inneforan ~ innefaran “intestines, entrails.” If such a suffix existed, the origin of all the words cited above will fall into place. A heifer will stay in its enclosure (see the meaning of hei– in the previous post). The stork will be confined to the wetlands, leave babies alone, and hunt for frogs. The first element of Old English scealfor ~ Dutch schollevar will remain obscure, but it may refer to some body of water or the creature’s behavior, because the bird’s other name is “diver,” and its other Dutch name is dompel-aar, from dompeln “to dive” (-aar, which later speakers associated with aar ”eagle,” goes back, almost certainly, to the familiar –vaar). Elver hardly ever meant “young eel.” The word’s sense must have been “an eel confined to its brood”; later the sense “brood” superseded the original one. William B. Lockwood, perhaps the greatest modern specialist in the history and origin of bird names, noted that the concept “goer” or “dweller” is alien to the popular ornithological nomenclature. The fieldfare was, consequently, not a field-farer or a field-dweller but a bird whose search for food is restricted to a field, which makes much better sense.

This is a real field-farer! (Image by Jean-François Millet via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

All the words examined today and a week ago must have been coined long before they surfaced in our texts. By the time of their attestation, their original meaning had become as obscure to the speakers as it is to modern etymologists. Nothing could be more natural! Those who spoke about thrushes, storks, sparrows, swallows, and heifers, had no idea why the birds were called this. After all, if we disregard Gothic (recorded in the fourth century) and the ancient Scandinavian runes, Germanic texts do not antecede the eighth century, while the names that interest us may have been coined in the hoariest antiquity.

Here I’ll stop and leave my characters in their enclosures, fields, and ponds. I hoped that the fieldfare might help the heifer, and, quite possibly, it did.

Featured image by TheOtherKev via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    Your “field-farer” may not be too far off! The “sparrow”, derived from the Greek “sporgiti”, also means “ground seed seeking” bird.

  2. Nigel Middlemiss

    Hi, re Fieldfare. I’m afraid the recherché attempts by your author to turn up a convincing etymology, and his usual rather scornful demolition of several possibles, has missed out on a gapingly obvious solution. The fieldfare is a game bird. It is a small one, but in earlier times – the name goes back to at least the 12th century – game smaller than normal today was often caught and eaten e.g. blackbirds (“four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”), house sparrows, buntings (a French delicacy in particular). A favourite Italian dish till recently was fieldfare soup. The other obvious indicator that fieldfare were treated for centuries as primarily edible is that the plural is the same as the singular, so not *fieldfares, but fieldfare e.g. a flock of fieldfare. The same singular / plural rule applies to grouse, deer, sheep and others.

  3. Nigel Middlemiss

    Now, ‘-fare’ here is directly related to another meaning than ‘travel’, that is, ‘food’, as in ‘fine fare’. Yes, it derives from the primary meaning of travel i.e. food to take with you on a journey. But it still does have that distinctive sense of its own. So “fieldfare” simply means “edible game caught in the fields rather than in the forest or on the moors”.

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