The recent irruption of Waxwings triggered my curiosity of the names of these tufted berry gobblers. The three species of waxwing are gathered under the genus Bombycilla; the name is a combination of Latin bombyx from Greek bombux = silk, and modern Latin cilla = tail, thus making silktail – widely used at present. The Western Palearctic species is known as Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus = chattering silktail – from Latin garrulus = talkative, chattering. The Eastern Palearctic species is Japanese Waxwing, Bombycilla japonica = Japanese silktail – for Japan. In the Nearctic the predominant species is Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum = cedar silktail – from Latin cedrus = cedar.
Conrad Gessner described Waxwings as Garrulo bohemico in his 1555 Historiae animalium. Use of the Bohemian adjective refers to the perception that the birds originated in Bohemia (now western Czech Republic). German zoologist Ragnar Kinzelbach has written about older names for Waxwings and how the waxy tips to the secondaries captured the imagination as representing flames. Thus the birds were referred to in Greek as spintharís or spintúrnix, in Latin as avis incendiaria = arsonist bird by Gaius Plinius Secundus in his Naturalis Historia, and in Middle High German as Zünder(lin) = (little) igniter (-lin = diminutive suffix). By the time the plague struck Europe, Waxwings became known as Pestvogel = plague bird, as irruptions seemed to coincide with plague outbreaks. Seidenschwanz was the name of a German dress and became used as a bird name by the sixteenth century.
By 1735, Linnaeus gathered Waxwings under Ampelis in the first edition of his Systema naturea, and in the still pre-binomial 1746 Fauna svecica, classifying Ampelis as passerines. Ampelis was an unidentified bird in Aristophanes, of which Linnaeus thought it fed on grapes. By the time the binomial classification was published in the 1758 Systema naturea10, he had changed his mind. Ampelis had become Lanius (i.e. shrikes) under Accipitres. Waxwing had become Lanius Garrulus = chattering butcherbird, the protonym.
It was Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1808 who took the German Seidenschwanz and translated it into Latin as Bombycilla. He defined waxwings as generically separate from shrikes, thrushes and cotingas, although he thought they were closely related to the latter.
Perhaps not surpisingly, Bohemian Waxwings have stimulated the imagination of many, which is reflected in the official names in various languages. The following list is arranged synonymously if possible.
The largest group is represented by probable translations from the German:
- Danish (DA) Silkehale = silktail – silke = silk, hale = tail;
- German (DE) Seidenschwanz = silktail – Seiden = silk, Schwanz = tail;
- Greek (EL) (Ευρωπαϊκή) βομβυκίλα = European silktail – Ευρώπη = Europe, -ϊκή = adjectival suffix (βομβυκίλα could be a transliteration into modern Greek of Bombycilla and thus meaningless?);
- Estonian (ET) Siidisaba = silktail – siidi = silk, saba = tail;
- Frisian (FY) Sidesturt = silktail – side = silk, sturt = tail;
- Latvian (LV) Zīdaste = silktail – zīds = silk, aste = tail;
- Norwegian (NO) Sidensvans = silktail – siden = silk, svans = tail;
- Swedish (SV) Sidensvans = silktail – siden = silk, svans = tail.
A few languages refer to silk but not to tail:
- Breton (BR) Seizeg sterenn = northern silky bird – seizeg = silky, sterenn = boreal, northern;
- Catalan (CA) Ocell sedós = silky bird – ocell = bird, seda = silk, -ós = adjectival suffix;
- Irish (GA) Síodeiteach = silkwing – síoda = silk, eite = wing, -ach = suffix;
- Icelandic (IS) Silkitoppa = silky tuft – silki = silk, toppa from toppr = tuft;
- Romanian (RO) Mătăsár = silky bird – mătase = silk, -ar = suffix.
References to the plague:
- Dutch (NL) Pestvogel = plague bird – pest = plague, vogel = bird;
- Croatian (HR) Kugara = plague bird – kuga = plague, -ara = feminine suffix.
Translations of Waxwing:
- Welsh (CY) Adain gŵyr = waxwing – adain = wing, cwŷr = wax;
- Manx (GV) Skian chereagh = waxwing – skian = wing, chereagh = wax;
- Cornish (KW) Askel gor = waxwing – askel (also ascall) = wing, gor = wax.
References to the bird calls:
- Finnish (FI) Tilhi = onomatopea;
- French (FR) Jaseur boréal = northern chatterer – jaser = to chatter, -eur = suffix, boréal from Latin borealis = north;
- Portuguese (PT) Tagarela-europeu = European chatterbox – tagarela = chatterbox, europeu = European;
- Russian (RU) Cвиристель = whistler – свирель = (reed-)pipe, shortened to свир, double suffixes -ист and -тель = masculine suffixes.
At times confusion has crept in about the type of berries Waxwings eat in winter, hence mix-ups with Mistle Thrush in some languages:
- Polish (PL) Jemiołuszka = mistletoe bird – jemioła = mistletoe, double suffixes -usz, -ka = feminine suffix;
- Belarusian (BE) Амялушка = mistletoe bird – Амяла = mistletoe, шка = suffix;
- Ukranian (UK) Звичайний омелюх = common mistletoe bird – Звичайний = common, омела = misteltoe, -юх = suffix.
According to an ancient Chinese legend, a crow rescued the emperor, after which the emperor showed his appreciation by turning the crow into a ‘bird of peace’, a ‘waxwing’; hence:
- Mongolian (MN) Шивэр энхэтбялзуухай = Siberian peace bird – шивэр = thicket, but used as Siberian as faunal adjectiv, энхэт = peace, бялзуухай = small bird;
- Chinese (ZH) 太平鸟 = peace bird – 太平 = peace, 鸟 = bird.
- Czech (CS) Brkoslav severní = northern magnificent feathers – brk = quill, feather, slav = magnificent, severní = northern (slav could be related to slovo = word, thus perhaps referring to bird calls, like in RU, FR, PT);
- Spanish (ES) Ampelis = from scientific Ampelis, from Greek ampelis (ampelos = vine), unidentified bird in Aristophanes, of which Linnaeus thought it fed on grapes;
- Basque (EU) Buztanoria = yellowtail (?) – buztan = tail, -ori = yellow (from hori), -a = article;
- Faroese (FO) Reyðstapi = redhead (?) – reyður = red, stapi = thatch;
- Gaelic (GD) Canarach-dearg = red canary (?) – canari = canary, -ach = suffix, dearg = red;
- Hungarian (HU) Csonttollú = bony feathers (csontos = bony, tollú = feathers);
- Italian (IT) Beccofrusone = grosbeak (becco = beak, frusone = grosbeak, from Latin ossifragus);
- Korean (KO) 황여새 = sulphur-coloured bird – 황 = sulphur, yellow, 여 = augmentative suffix, 새 = bird;
- Lithuanian (LT) Paprastasis svirbelis = common staggerer – paprastasis = common, svirb = to stagger, -elis = suffix;
- Sami (SE) Bealljerásttis = eared thrush – beallje from beallji = ear, rásttis loaned from Finnish rásttis = thrush (fieldfare);
- Slovak (SK) Chochlač severský = northern tufted bird – chochlač possibly rhythmic contraction of chochol = tuft, with suffix, severský = northern;
- Albanian (SQ) Çafkëlore bishtverdhë = yellow-tailed crested lark (Çafkë = crest, lore from laureshë = lark, bischt = tail, verdh = yellow, ë = suffix).
Finally a few asides:
- in Dutch silktail = Zijdestaart = Hypocolius;
- in Finnish the alleged onomatopea was first used by Finnish botanist and entomologist William Nylander, before that the bird was known from Meänkieli jouhilintu (horsetail bird) or tupsuniska (tufted neck/nape).