Hot Chicks and Old Hens: Bird Names Used as Surnames, Slang, and Metaphor

Updated on May 12, 2016

Birds can inspire us -- or they can describe us. A long-standing tradition in the English language is using bird names to describe, mock, or glorify individuals. In fact, many English surnames come from birds in the naming convention in which nicknames were given based on a person's appearance or behavior. Even today, birds appear in literary symbolism or street slang.

Eating like a bird.
Eating like a bird. | Source

Avian Epithets.

Perhaps because certain bird characteristics were so easily recognizable, birds have flown into our language as a useful and popular descriptive device. Oftentimes, these descriptions are derogatory.

A turkey is someone who is considered a loser or unintelligent. My dad, who raised turkeys in his youth, often referred to people with no common sense as "real turkeys." A hen is a derogatory name for a woman -- there is even an event called a "hen party" which is the equivalent of a man's stag party. (Of course, a chick is a young, attractive female.) Then there's a chicken -- someone who is cowardly. (Fowl, in general, seem to get plenty of mileage.)

A loon is someone either very flighty or (to use another slang term) a wacko. A goose is someone silly or daffy. (Yes, waterfowl are also well represented among derogatory bird names.) Then there is a duckling -- as in an ugly duckling. It refers to a child who is awkward and homely but who grows up to be a great beauty. They aren't to be confused with sitting ducks -- people who are easy targets for whatever malice or misadventure is about to occur. Of course, the ugly duckling eventually turns into the graceful swan.

A dodo is a person who is dopey or just plain dumb. It's bad enough the real dodo was relentlessly hunted by settlers and their domestic pets to the point of extinction, but then the name must live in infamy as an epithet for our slower-thinking brethren. (Dodos, by the way, were sitting ducks when hunted.)

A cuckoo is, like a loon, a goofy or insane person, so called because the cuckoo bird has some very strange habits themselves. A magpie is a person who chatters incessantly; a parrot is someone without original thoughts, who mimics others' words. A pigeon? A person who is easily taken advantage of, a fool. A vulture is the person who might be eager to take advantage of that pigeon -- they can't wait to leap in and feed off of the ill fortune of others.

I've known a few peacocks -- I still recall one fellow, an unemployed politician, who was rarely seen without bright red shirts and a yellow or purple bandanna as he rode his horse. Everything about him cried out, "Look at me!" At least his flashy nature made it easy to see him coming so we could all duck out of sight.

A Harris's hawk, New River, Arizona.
A Harris's hawk, New River, Arizona. | Source
Roosting doves at dusk.  New River, Arizona.
Roosting doves at dusk. New River, Arizona. | Source

Avian Adoration.

Not all nicknames or descriptions lent by birds are negative, though. If you hear someone wax poetic about a raven-haired beauty, you can't help but visualize a fair-complected woman with glossy black hair. If someone is described as owlish, you may get a visual of a bookish sort with coke-bottle glasses -- but regardless of how your mind conjures them, you know they're very, very wise. That inspirational and charismatic military leader? He's most certainly an eagle.

Then there are doves -- people who believe in peace above all. Their counterpart on the other side of the fence are hawks -- people who who want to wage war. The ostrich, of course, doesn't want to keep abreast of current affairs at all.

The word sparrow is sometimes used euphemistically for the average person, as in "if a sparrow falls." We feel nurturing towards that vulnerable, common sparrow, whereas we can't help but be hopeful that the bluebird of happiness will perch nearby.

A cardinal rule of writing:  use vivid imagery.
A cardinal rule of writing: use vivid imagery. | Source

Bird Bird Bird,the Bird is the Word ...

Have you ever quailed at the thought of something frighteningt? Or groused about that woman at work with the annoying cackle of a laugh? Blame the bird. Do you know someone particularly cocky? That term comes from a rooster, also known as a cock -- roosters are infamous for being full of themselves, and strutting around proudly looking for fights. Maybe you have amused yourself by going on a lark. Have you perhaps wanted to just bury your head in the sand because the nightly news is just too tragic? The latter approach is a reference to the ostrich. Birds and their habits inform our daily speech, so much so that we rarely even think about the origin of the saying.


A delicate but feisty hummingbird.  New River, Arizona.
A delicate but feisty hummingbird. New River, Arizona. | Source

Surnames Inspired by Birds

Bird names are well represented in surnames -- our family names. Surnames are generally derived from one of four ways -- from the father's name; from occupation; from place names; and from physical or behavioral characteristics. Bird names come into play in the latter group, as people and (by extension their families) were dubbed with nicknames based on bird-like appearance or characteristics. I find these the most interesting surnames of all. Strangely enough, bird surnames also derive from place names. Many English surnames came from pub or inn signs -- those that had bird names would lend their name to people who lived near or in that establishment -- or who were the proprietors.

The name Finch is an excellent example of a bird-derived surname. Think about the word "fink." "Fink" is the German word for a finch, and both "Finch" and "Fink" are fairly common surnames. Interestingly, the word "fink" in its deprecatory meaning as a person who snitches on someone else comes from the German bird name. What's the connection? Well, someone who snitches on someone else sings like a bird -- hence the "fink" usage and surname. "Finch" and "fink" can also refer to someone with a lovely singing voice; it can be either a good or a bad appellation.

Here are some other surnames that derived from types or characteristics of birds:

  • Arundel is from the French "arondel" for a little swallow
  • Caliendo -- Italian for lark-like, and as appealing in sound as the bird's own song
  • Crane -- Who can forget the long-necked, lanky Ichabod of early American literature?
  • Crowe / Crow -- Often so-called for blackness / swarthy characteristics
  • Fasano -- Pheasant in Italian
  • Gans / Gauss (goose) -- and the related "Rheingans," which means "Rhine goose." Who isn't familiar with Mother Goose, as well? Goose itself is an uncommon surname, but at one time I had neighbors named Goose. (It always seemed awkward referring to them as the Geese rather than the Geese.)
  • Heron -- Like Crane, inspired by physical appearance.
  • Nightingale was likely inspired by someone with a gentle voice -- and forever familiar to us thanks to the gentle nurse, Florence.
  • Partridge -- the noble English name was, interestingly, applied to that fictitious all-American singing family of the 70's TV show, showing not only how names can be applied in reference to characteristics, but how they can be symbolic in literature and the arts.
  • Sikora -- Polish for titmouse
  • Sparrow -- Captain Jack, of course!
  • Starling -- as in Clarice, Hannibal Lecter's collleague of sorts
  • Stork / Storch -- Originally a nickname given to a long-legged man
  • Vogel -- German for bird (and, of course, we've all heard the English equivalent of that surname -- "Bird!")
  • Vogelsong / Fogelsong -- Both "Vogelsong" and "Fogelsong" are among the variations of "bird song." This name might be a descriptor for someone with a lovely voice or even a great whistle.
  • Woodcock -- Another of my childhood neighbors. I was surrounded by bird-men!

Many Native American surnames are beautiful and inspirational testaments to the spiritual significance of birds -- or character traits attributed to them. Raptors such as hawks and eagles figure prominently in many tribal surnames, as do doves.

The surnames cited here are by no means a comprehensive list, but may give you an idea of many common family names of avian origin.

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First Names

Although not used to the extent that flowers are in giving us first names, birds still have a presence in that naming convention as well. Think about the lovely name, "Phoebe." Named after an appealing tail-wagging insectivore, the sound of the name is as soothing as a birdsong. Then there's Robin -- used as both a male and female name. Though rarely heard now, the name "Wren" always evokes a certain delicacy, while "Merlin" is as distinctive as that small falcon itself.

A vigilant hawk makes it easy to see why we refer to people as "hawkish" or "hawk-eyed."
A vigilant hawk makes it easy to see why we refer to people as "hawkish" or "hawk-eyed." | Source

The Metaphorical Bird

As figures of speech, birds give us an easy visual we can identify with. Although we're rapidly losing touch with the natural world that once informed conversation, we still readily recognize a silly goose or a cocky young man. Bird imagery is prevalent in literature from the earliest of times; many of the best-known Middle English poems, such as "The Fowles [fowls] in the Frith" or "The Cuckoo Song" used birds both representatively and symbolically. Birds make for useful metaphors, as well. An albatross is symbolic of something that weighs one down, or a great burden, as in an albatross around one's neck.

Not all uses of bird symbols are so lofty -- we all know that the early bird gets the worm, and that a bird in the hand beats all heck out of a bird in the bush. The canary in the coal mine was once a real entity -- a delicate bird kept in confined mine shafts to forewarn of hazardous breathing conditions. If the canary succumbed, miners knew the air was unsafe. That usage evolved into the use of a canary as anyone who may be sacrificed as a means of warning other, more important people.

Harper Lee aptly used the mockingbird as that compelling metaphor for an innocent who was sacrificed in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and anyone who has read Robert Hellenga's "Fall of a Sparrow" can attest to the fact that birds remain poignant symbols in contemporary literature. My mention of birds of metaphor is just a sampling, of course -- certainly books could be written on these flights of fancy.

"Like a bird on a wire ..." -- even Leonard Cohen was inspired by them!
"Like a bird on a wire ..." -- even Leonard Cohen was inspired by them! | Source

Bird Words: Still Flyin' High.

Lest you think that bird references are slipping entirely out of our day-to-day speech as we grow increasingly urbanized, think about that phenomena known as "tweeting." Birds tweeted long before that popular means of communication took electronic flight (in 140 characters or less).

Next time you enjoy that pico de gallo at your favorite Mexican restaurant, maybe you'll be amused to know that it means "rooster beak" because of the sharp bite it has. Do all these bird references make you want to wring my neck? That was once a popular method of butchering chickens for dinner. I suppose I am something of a geek for finding these bird terms so fascinating -- oh, excuse me: a geek was the fellow at the circus side-show who used to bite the heads off of chickens. Maybe I should say I'm nerdlike, instead.

Hopefully even if you're a "hunt and peck" typist (as in, pecking like a chicken) you'll leave me a comment below!

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    • profile image

      Benjamin Chege 4 years ago

      You're welcome

    • MJennifer profile image
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      Marcy J. Miller 4 years ago from Arizona

      Awwww, Benjamin, thank you so much! I really enjoy unique word usages and histories, and am so happy you found it interesting. Thank you for saying hello!

      Best -- MJ

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      Benjamin Chege 4 years ago

      Hi Marcy J. Mille. Had to vote it up, funny, awesome, beautiful, and interesting. I find it very funny that all those names originate from birds. That was really creative. You must have done extensive research to come up with the hub. We appreciate you. Thank you for the information.

    • MJennifer profile image
      Author

      Marcy J. Miller 4 years ago from Arizona

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, Bearnmom.

      Best -- MJ

    • bearnmom profile image

      Laura L Scotty 4 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      I was becoming distracted in the middle and had to go to the end and make my way back to the middle reading each segment. Your article has a lot of symbolism by using bird terminology. There are very good references to bird names being used as definitive descriptive terms for people. Good job.

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