Fun Etymology Tuesday – Penguin

Hello, our internet friends!
It’s Fun Etymology day!

Today’s word is a weird one: “penguin”!

The word “penguin” is yet another of a long string of borrowings in the English language, and that is rather unremarkable. What is remarkable though, is the language it probably comes from: Welsh.

Now what could the Welsh be doing naming a bird that lives on the opposite side of the Earth from Wales?

And the original meaning is even weirder: it comes from the words “pen”, ‘head’, and “gwyn”, ‘white’, but most penguins’ heads are black!

Well, it turns out that the name didn’t originally belong to the penguin, but to another bird: the Great Auk, a bird which is unfortunately now extinct and which lived in the northern Atlantic, and which happened to look very similar to a penguin.
Its head was also black, but it sported a very prominent white mark on its beak, which was probably the origin of its name.

It appears that sailors exploring Antarctica noticed the similarity between the two birds and were too lazy to give the newly discovered one a new name.

And that’s how a Celtic word meaning “white head” came to mean a black-headed bird from Antarctica.

Words. We never get tired of them.

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