BIRD

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th September 1994, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called BIRD?

When a name is frequently encountered across the British Isles, the reason is generally that it was either an occupational name, such as "Smith" or "Baker", or it points to being somebody's child, such as "Robinson" or "Jenkins". The local directories contain about 600 entries under the heading "Bird" or "Birds" which indicates that although it may not be among the more widely distributed surnames, it occurs with sufficient frequency to make us wonder how it has been derived.

People whose surnames are actually those of birds can usually be taken to have had ancestors who were nick-named because there was something in their characters which reminded their fellow-tribesmen of a particular bird. Because the process began so long ago, few specific records have survived so we can only resort to inspired guesswork as to how, for example, the predecessors of our local heroine, Florence Nightingale, came by that name.

Another local name is "Wildgoose" and this must have been so well established from a nickname that it is actually entered up as a surname in the Records of Shropshire as early as the year 1201. An interesting list could be compiled of all the celebrated persons who are named after birds, such as Sir Francis Drake, Admiral Hawke and Sir Christopher Wren. The earliest recorded entry for "Bird" itself is found in York, dated 1193.

The origins of the name "Bird" (or "Birds") when standing alone, are not immediately obvious. After all, it does not need much imagination to see why a vain and conceited person might attract the name "Peacock", why somebody with a beautiful singing voice be called "Nightingale" and why a man with courage and a proud, commanding personality, by known as "Eagle". But why some people should simply be called "Bird" is a bit of a puzzle and it is necessary to look into it a little more closely.

In the first place, how did the flying creatures come to be called "birds" anyway? That word is special to English and its origins are unknown. In other North European languages, the equivalent expressions incorporate the notion of flying - as in the Norwegian "fugl" and the German "vogel". Such words might - and only might - be linked with a Latin word "fluxus" which means "flowing" or "fluttering" and from which the older word "fowl" might have been derived: there is no certainty in this matter.

Apart from the fact that there are no root-words with which to connect "bird", the meaning has shifted. In Old English the expression "bird" was used only to describe young fowls, such as chickens, eaglets, cygnets and similar nestlings. Indeed in some parts of the North of England one can still hear references to "a hen and her birds". (From this it is tempting to look for a connection with "brood" and "breed" but this notion, though attractive, cannot be supported).

Still, these old meanings now give us a clue as to what the surname "Bird" actually means. The word, with many variations such as "brid", "brydde", "byrd" etc., not only applied to young fowls, but was transferred to young people, both youths and maidens. In 1330 we find an old writer describing the younger men of a community as "ye berdes, bold at heart" and, slightly earlier (1300) another religious writer speaks of the Virgin Mary as "that blisful bird of grace".

Of course the expression "bird" has long since ceased to be applied to a young man generally, and survives only in one expression, "bridegroom". However in the case of a young woman, the designation "bride" is self-evident and there are many compounds, such as "bridesmaid" and "bride-cake". Furthermore the term "bird" is still currently used in modern colloquial English by young men to describe girls in general - "He kept a sharp eye open for the birds", says George Orwell in one of his novels (1935). In the United States another form of the word, "broad" has gained acceptance but is not favoured on this side of the Atlantic.

Hence, since "Bird", "Byrd", "Bryd", "Bride" etc., can all be shown to be applicable to young people, it follows that it would have been natural for the inhabitants of a community to designate younger members as "birds" and in the fulness of time for it to have become a surname. Apart from meaning a "youngster" in its own right, it is also found doubled-up with another unit which also means "small" or "young" i.e. "-kin" (see Hodgkinson - 26th April, 1993). This is "Birdikin" which means, literally, "the young person belonging to the young person"! Similarly, in the case of "Birds", the final "-s" simply indicates "belonging to" or "descended from" and so a person called "Birds" would originally have had an ancestor identified as "the son of Bird" (i.e. Bird's) and that form of the name became established.

There are a few instances where it might relate to an occupation: "Birder" is mentioned in 1481 to describe a bird-snarer. Or possibly a person skilled at spying out for enemies could be known as "the Bird" on account of a useful skill at being able to keep hidden, then disappear swiftly and easily into the distance. (This is picked up in the modern idiom when a car is said to "go like a bird"). The most celebrated bearer of the name is William Byrd (1542-1623) a musical composer of the time of Queen Elizabeth I. His works are greatly admired by specialists but you aren't likely to hear them in the "Disco"!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th September 1994.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Bird.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library