Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson, circa 1772, by Joshua Reynolds




The noun bird is from the masculine Old English brid (plural briddas), in Northumbrian, bird (plural birdas).

There is no corresponding form in any other Germanic language, and the etymology is unknown. A connection with the nouns brood and breed is doubtful. The usual Germanic word is represented in English by fowl (The Parliament of Fowls, a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400), means The Parliament of Birds).

In Old English, brid meant offspring, young, but it was used only of the young of birds. For example, in the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, the gospel of Luke, 2:24, is:

And ðaet hig offrunge seáldon, aefter ðam ðe Drihtnes aé gecweden is, Twá turtlan, oððe twegen culfran* briddas.

(* culver: pigeon; culver bird: young pigeon)

In the Early Version of the Wycliffe Bible (around 1382), this verse is:

and that they shall give an offering, after that it is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two culver birds.

And in the King James Version (1611):

and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

As late as around 1591, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the word in the sense of a bird’s offspring in The Third part of King Henry the Sixth:

King Edward IV (Plantagenet): His name that valiant duke hath left with thee;
His dukedom and his chair with me is left.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester): Nay, if thou be that princely eagle’s bird,
Show thy descent by gazing ’gainst the sun:
For chair and dukedom, throne and kingdom say;
Either that is thine, or else thou wert not his.

In Middle English, bird was also used for the young of other animals. In On the Properties of Things, a translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum, originally written by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (floruit 1230-50), John Trevisa (circa 1342-1402?) used terms such as byrdes of been [= bees].

And toad’s birds was used to denote an evil brood, a perverse new generation. In Sermons preached in the kirk of Edinburgh (1591), the Church of Scotland minister Robert Bruce (1554-1631) wrote:

Suspect ever your affectiouns, what ever entisement they haue to cloake the selfe with: suspect ever the motioun of them, for the Devill is in them:—Swa, they wald ever be handled as Tod’s birds; for they ar aye the war of ouer great libertie.

The word was also used in the senses of young man, youngster, child and son. In The History of the Reformation in Scotland, the religious reformer John Knox (circa 1514-72) wrote, about Archbishop Hamilton:

After he had tackin by craft the Castellis of Edinburgh and Dumbar, he tooke also possessioun of his Eme’s wyiff [= kinsman’s wife], the Lady Stennoss: the woman is and hes bein famouse, and is called Lady Gylton. Hir Ladiship was holdin alwayis in propertie; but how many wyiffis and virgenes he hes had sen that tyme in commoun, the world knowis, albeit nott all, and his bastard byrdis bear some witness.

It was also used to designate a maiden, a girl. In this sense, bird was confused with burd, originally a distinct poetic word for woman, lady, and later used to mean young lady, maiden. It was perhaps also confused with bride. However, later writers understood it as a figurative use of bird in its primary sense of chick, fledgling, or in its secondary, general sense of any feathered animal.

The use of bird seems to have extended at first from the young of birds to the smaller kinds, then to any feathered animal. As late as 1755, Samuel Johnson (1709-84) wrote, in A Dictionary of the English Language:

Bird. A general term for the feathered kind; a fowl. In common talk, fowl is used for the larger, and bird for the smaller kind of feathered animals.

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