Grouse & Quail

Don’t blame the birds.

Dear Word Detective: Most bird allusions I get. Magpies do chatter, geese are not intelligent birds, and chickens are not fearless (although fighting cocks are, and they do crow about themselves, although why roosters crow and crows caw is a different subject entirely). But do quail really quail? And the one that has me most puzzled, do grouse characteristically grouse? I know there is a ruff grouse, and if one gets one’s feathers ruffled, he is likely to complain; other than that I see no connection. Help! — Sam Glasscock.

Geese aren’t intelligent? Pshaw. Would it surprise you to learn that both Alexander Hamilton and Albert Einstein had geese in their family trees? Yeah, me too, but you really want to watch what you say about geese. They may be stupid as a box of rocks, but they hold a grudge and they can fly. Speaking of which, why don’t more animals fly? Birds do it, of course, and bugs, and bats, but why are there no larger flying critters? Can you imagine a deer with wings? Flying wolves would be awesome. I’m gonna whip up a t-shirt and get rich.

English has dozens of words and phrases drawn from our acquaintance with our fine feathered friends, of course. We’ve borrowed so many metaphors and idioms from the wild kingdom in general that books explaining the animal origins of popular idioms and sayings will be perennial fixtures of the reference section as long as libraries and bookstores exist. (Which will probably be about another six months, tops. Don’t get me started.) Personally, I am partial to Christine Ammer’s “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions” (1989), at least in part because Ms. Ammer is a rock-solid lexicographer and doesn’t simply make stuff up (a real danger in this genre). In her section on geese, for instance, she covers “loose as a goose,” “take a gander,” “goose flesh” and “goose step” among other goose-locutions.

Interestingly, neither “grouse” nor “quail” show up in Ms. Ammer’s book, because you’ve managed to pick two bird names that have absolutely nothing to do with the common verbs spelled the same way (meaning, respectively, “to complain or grumble” and “to cower or tremble”). Disappointing, I know, but I can only go where the trail leads.

The bird we call a “quail” is a small game bird, resembling a small partridge. The word “quail” referring to this bird first appeared in English in the 14th century, derived from the Anglo-Norman “quaille,” which was almost certainly formed in imitation of the bird’s cry. Two fun “quail” facts: use of “quail” as slang for a young woman dates back to the mid-19th century, and former US Vice-President Dan Quayle’s surname is drawn from an earlier spelling of the bird’s name.

“Quail” as a verb meaning “to cower” or “to give way in fear” dates to the 15th century and is of uncertain origin, although it may be related to our English verb “to quell,” from the Old English “cwellan,” meaning “to kill.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page