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Foto: Maarten Zeehandelaar

Generally I try to write my contributions without consulting the internet on whatever the new photo is showing. But this time a long lingering question popped up immediately and I had to know the answer to it. We all have such moments of compulsiveness, don't we? I like to think so anyway. The question is this one: Why is a hummingbird called a hummingbird?

The obvious answer is: because of the humming sound created by their beating wings, when they hover in front of a flower. But that's not what I mean. No what's eating me is this: English usually has a sharp sense of linguistic beauty when it comes to assigning signifiers to the signified (notwithstanding the "matter of taste" argument that could be made here, it does the best it can, and from a native Dutch perspective seems to do a pretty good job). So, why did it do such a lazy job of signifying what is elsewhere known by the beautiful name 'kolibri', or 'colibrí'? Well, not solely, there are other names as well, but generally they are way more apt for such an exceptional creature than the rather plain 'hummingbird'(in Hungary, for instance, it is known as 'virágmadár' which plainly means 'flowerbird', but what a ring to it, don't you agree?).

So did I find an answer? No of course not. But I did find this piece of information that I feel is worth sharing, because it seems so blatantly out of character for that tiny beautiful speedy hovering flowerbird.

It is widely thought that the word 'colibri' stems from some native Caribbean language. But, when researching, the most viable theory that comes up is this: the word was brought to the Caribbean by French colonists. And they named it after the 'Occitane colubro' (Occitanie being an ancient province that once stretched across the south of France, from east to west, incorporating Catalonia and Italian Piedmont).

Now here's the thing: the Occitane colubro ... is a grass snake. And what, you may wonder, as I did, is the common ground between a snake and a bird as lovely as the little virágmadár (other than that the former might eat the latter, if it's fast enough)? Fits of anger, explosions of rage! Can you believe it? You see that, there, against its nice green background, humming is if it doesn't have a care in the world? Prone to sudden fits of rage ... And, I might add, at such a high frequency, that those fits became common enough to name the bird for them. Really, that kolibri never ceases to amaze me.


Texto por: Peter-Jan Vermeij


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Copyright © 2010-2017 Maarten Zeehandelaar.

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