Jackdaw

Lager lout of the air.

Dear Word Detective: My wife came across a word we don’t know in a novel she is reading. Here is how it was used: “Gladly, just as soon as a certain arrogant jackdaw is gone from my home.” The word is “jackdaw.” — Rick.

And a fine word it is, too. You don’t even have to know what “jackdaw” means to know it’s an insult. You can somehow tell that it’s never going to crop up in a sentence like “The new hire at work is a brilliant young jackdaw with a bright future” (unless you’re listening to a master of sarcasm). You’re more likely to find “jackdaw” in a complaint of slander, as in “Plaintiff alleges that defendant, in the presence of his children, called him a ‘scoundrel,’ a ‘guttersnipe’ and a ‘jackdaw.’”

None of this is really fair to the actual “jackdaw,” which is an innocent little bird with above-average intelligence. The jackdaw (Corvus monedula) is a member of the crow family, perhaps a bit smaller than standard crows, but known for its ability to imitate human speech and its eagerness to do so. The original name of the jackdaw was simply “daw,” from the Middle English “dawe,” based on a Germanic root that itself was probably simply an imitation of the bird’s call. “Jack” (a familiar form of the name John) is often tacked onto animal names to denote either “male” (as in “jackass”) or “small sized” (as in “jackdaw”).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the jackdaw is “noted for its loquacity and thievish propensities,” which apparently means that when the bird isn’t actively looting your house it’s driving you nuts with its babbling. This brings us to the use of “jackdaw,” beginning in the early 17th century, as a derogatory term for a loud, talkative and obnoxious person, the sense your wife encountered in her novel. “Jackdaw” is fairly rarely heard today, but we really ought to revive the term. The species, after all, is far from extinct.

Interestingly, jackdaws (the feathered kind) were suffering from a bad reputation even before their name became an insult. Aesop featured jackdaws in no fewer than six of his fables, none showing the bird in a good light. In the most famous, “The Jackdaw and the Peacocks,” a jackdaw comes across some feathers shed by the brilliantly colored birds and decides to impersonate a peacock by donning the plumage. The peacocks, however, are not fooled and reject him. So he returns home to his jackdaw flock, but they, too, now reject him, saying, “If you had been content to dwell among us, satisfied with what Nature had bestowed on you, then you would not have been humiliated by the peacocks, nor would your disgrace have met with our rebuff.” One wonders what Aesop would have to say about plastic surgery.

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