Marine reptiles take wing.

18 August 2009

Consider the albatross.
Rather, consider the word albatross.

OED informs us that albatross probably comes by way of alcatras an obsolete word used variably for frigate birds, gannets and/or pelicans adapted from the Spanish/Portuguese word alcatraz–the toponymous island turned prison turned tourist attraction is named for the brown pelicans which still (despite that nasty late-20th century business with DDT) abound there–itself apparently adapted from alcatruz (Pg.) via algcaduz (Sp.) the bucket on a Moorish water wheel or al-qadus (Arabic) — except that Wikipedia (citing the American Hertiage Dictionary) argues that al-qatraz القطرس is Arabic for “sea eagle”.  Our friend Dampier used algatross which would seem to make for a nice intermediate between alcatras and albatross.  Cook — who, superstitions aside, shot and ate his fair share — used both albetross and albatross.  OED suspects the transition from Alca to Alba might be inspired by albus (Latin for “white”).

None of which has anything to do with anything except,check it:

Pinguinus is, or rather was, not a penguin.

Puffinus is not a puffin.  Not even close.

Pelecanoides is not a pelican.  More like an auk really, except that it’s not.

Got it?

Images: top Wikipedia, middle and bottom Collection Georges Declercq via EOL used under Creative Commons 3.0.

2 Responses to “Marine reptiles take wing.”


  1. Pinguinus is, or rather was, not a penguin.

    Wrong! Pinguinus was the original “penguin”, long before any uppity Southern Hemisphere bird was given the name. Southern Hemisphere “penguins” became so-called because they looked like Northern Atlantic penguins, and it wasn’t until later that the name became more associated with the former than the latter.

  2. Neil Says:

    That’s what I had always thought.

    But the supposed earliest published use of the word pengwin comes from the log of the Golden Hind (c. 1577) and actually refers to spheniscids (according to the OED). The earliest published use of the word to refer to an alcid comes at 1578. It’s still likely that the word was originally applied to the auk, but there is no material evidence to demonstrate that the word has an exceptionally old origin. At the very least, by the time it came into wide usage in English it was being used for both birds.

    The origins of the word are debated, either it derives from the Latin pinguis (fat) or more likely it comes from the Welsh Pen Gywn literally “white head,” which might refer to the white spot on the head of Pinguinus or the shit covered rocks (Pen can also mean “headland”) upon which they lived.

    Also, it seems that Magellan called true penguins “geese” which makes me wonder how the Chloephaga got its name….


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