The Bird Name Book: a history of English bird names

By Susan Myers

Princeton University Press, 2023

Hbk, 416pp; 200 colour photos and colour illustrations

ISBN 978-0-691-23569-1; £21.99


Several books have been published on the origins and meanings of birds’ names, some focusing on the origin of the words themselves, some on the people behind the honorific names that many species were given. The Bird Name Book focuses just on English names (although discussion on scientific names does creep into several entries), and takes a broad, ‘top-level’ approach, dealing with the vernacular names of families or genera: crake, crane, creeper, etc. Some definitions are, of course, rather expected – the creepers creep, for example, though even here some historical snippets of its early use are given and add extra interest to the text. For most entries, there is an exploration of the history of the word, records of its earliest origins, and examples of past use and evolution. This varies from a paragraph to a page, and often delves back as far as Ancient Greek and various proto western European languages. Entries are, as you might expect, listed in alphabetical order.


If I could find just one niggle, it’s with the slightly inconsistent placement of the photographs, which work out at about one per five text entries. Some are placed below the entry’s subtitle along with the text, while some are placed above (or even on the page before) and, while there’s little chance of confusing a Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica with a Goldcrest Regulus regulus (especially since the images are labelled), the sight of the former at the bottom of the full-page entry for the latter (Barrow’s Goldeneye appears overleaf) is a little jolting. Overall, though, this is a well-written, well-researched book. It is perhaps not as comprehensive in the number of entries as some of the other similar titles that have been written but it is definitely one of the more readable books on the topic, being mostly prose rather than simply definitions. I certainly learnt many interesting facts from the entries that I read through and often couldn’t resist reading just one more entry before I put the book down again.


Stephen Menzie

Issue 7
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a history of English bird names

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