9 May 2015


Considering our mascot is a hawk*, for some reason we seem to tweet an awful lot about magpies:
And sometimes it even happens inadvertently:
We stumbled across pleany-pie a few weeks ago in a handful of old local English dictionaries. Among them was the hallowed English Dialect Dictionary, which defines a pleany-pie as “a tell-tale, a gossip; literally, a complaining magpie.” The EDD even records an old Yorkshire nursery rhyme that was presumably used to admonish schoolyard snitches back in eighteenth century England:

A pleeanie-pie tit,
Thy tongue shal be slit,
An’ iv’ry dog i’ th’ town
Shal hev a bit.

Dismembered tongues aside, it’s the “complaining magpie” part of the EDD’s definition that concerns us here: pleany– is an old dialect derivative of plain, meaning “to whinge” or “bemoan” (as in complain or plaintive), while –pie comes straight from magpie, a proverbially raucous and chattery bird. Hence a pleany-pie is an annoyingly vocal, complaining person.

Our pleany-pie tweet, however, sparked an interesting back-and-forth in the comments (we’re looking at you @BertSwattermain and @MooseAllain) about the connection between pie and magpie, and magpie and pied, meaning “black and white”, or “blotchy”. And, as always happens in cases like this, one quick bit of research opened a whole new etymological can of worms.

So, first things first. Originally, magpies were known only as pies in English—the earliest record we have of them comes from an Anglo-Saxon document that lists pyge as the Old English translation of pica, the Latin name for the magpie. It’s from this Latin name that the English pie eventually evolved, but if the word pica itself looks familiar, then that’s probably because we still use it today as the medical name for a pregnant woman’s cravings for bizarre, non-nutritious substances people shouldn’t really consume—like ice, clay, charcoal, and bread-and-butter pudding. (Bread does not belong in a dessert, people, no matter how much custard you pour over it.)

But we digress. It was the Greeks who first described these strange prenatal cravings, and it was they who chose to name them after the magpie (kíssa in Ancient Greek), because magpies, they noticed, seem to eat just about anything. They’d probably even eat bread-and-butter pudding given half a chance. 

A Eurasian magpie. Bread-and-butter pudding just out of shot.

Over time, the Greek kíssa gave way to the Latin pica, which in turn simplified to pie in English. And it’s thanks to this, and the magpie’s familiar black-and-white plumage (in Europe and North America at least—take a look at this fantastically fruity magpie from Sri Lanka), that we now have names for other black-and-white birds like the pied wagtail and the pied flycatcher, as well as for piebald horses. And it’s also why the Pied Piper was such a snazzy dresser.

So if that’s the story behind the –pie, what about the ­mag–? Well, there’s no lengthy, civilization-spanning history to talk about here. The mag– of magpie is actually just a pet form of the girl’s name Margaret, or Margery. That might sound odd, but there’s actually a long tradition in English dialect of using forenames as nicknames for birds, as in tom-tit, jenny-wren and robin redbreast (which was originally the Robert Redbreast, incidentally). 

So the goldfinch was once nicknamed the King Harry. The barn owl was once the Jenny owl. The song thrush is still known in some locations as Mavis. House sparrows were once Philips, while hedge sparrows were variously known as Mollies, Isaacs, or even Molly Isaacs. And, best of all, the green woodpecker—when it isn’t busy piloting short-haul flights for weasels—was once the laughing BetsyRecords show that magpies first earned the nickname Mag or Maggie as far back as the mid-1500s (although it was likely in use locally earlier than that), and it soon established itself as the norm—albeit, with a variety of brilliant local variations.

But that still leaves one last question—why give a person’s forename to a bird at all? Well, in the case of magpie some etymologists have pointed to a connection between chattering birds and gossiping, incessantly talking women or “chattermags” (no comment here), but it’s just as likely that it’s the familiarity of magpies, and all the other birds listed above, that earned them an equally common forename as their nickname. Which, incidentally, is the same reason why we have tomcats and billy-goats—and it’s probably why baby kangaroos are called joeys.

*Actually, our mascot appears to be a kestrel—which is a falcon, not a hawk. Uh oh…

1 comment:
  1. 'Mavis' isn't really parallel, though, is it? The use of it as a first name is derived from the etymologically obscure bird, which the OED traces to mediaeval Latin/Norman French, rather than the other way round.