Thursday, April 23, 2015

Being bird brained.

Kingfisher is the beer that made the Mallyas rich. Eagle is the handy thermos flask you carry to hospitals. Dove is the soap that claims it isn’t a soap. Penguin is the publisher of books you never cared to read. Crane is that paaku thool (betel nut) with that irritating jingle. A top-of-mind-awareness test of bird names is likely to throw up such learned responses from the smartest of city dwellers. That’s how much we know about the winged creatures.

For a generation obsessed with ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Avian Flu’, it’s quite ironical that we can’t tell a crane from a stork, or a falcon from a kite. To cure ourselves of our collective ignorance, let’s go on a wild goose chase to up our bird IQ by a few notches.

What’s common to the cuckoo, the owl, the kookaburra, and the cock? If you blinked like a dying tube light, let’s put you out of your agony by pointing out that these birds are named after the distinctive sound they make. Owl, for instance, is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Ulluka’ which in turn flows from the ululating call it makes. I’d add the Indian crow and the New Zealand Kiwi to the list.

Appearances and plumage also play a role in the nomenclature. The flame-like orangish red colour of the feathers, give the flamingo (from Spanish ‘flamengo’) its flamboyant label. Eagle comes from the Latin ‘Aquila’ and it means ‘water-coloured’ or dark hued bird. Along the same lines, Penguin draws its roots from ‘Pen Gwyn’ which implies ‘white head’ in Welsh.

Sometimes misnomers have resulted in ludicrous choices. America’s favourite thanksgiving bird, the ‘Turkey’, is actually not from Turkey. It’s a native species often confused with the Guinea fowl, which incidentally was introduced to Europe from the Mediterranean country. The resulting confusion gave rise to ‘Turkey’ which incidentally is referred to in Turkey as ‘Hindi’ because it’s thought to have been imported from India! The albatross has a similar tale. In the early days, it was mixed up with the pelican and was hence christened from the Spanish word ‘alcatruz’ (meaning: water carrier).

Other common birds have rather pedestrian origins. The German word for ‘singer’ gave rise to Swan. Rooster was whipped up when ‘cock’ was found to be unparliamentary. Pigeon is literally ‘young chirping bird’. And many think ‘dove’ is related to the past tense of ‘dive’ in reference to its flight. Hope that left you happy as a lark!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How Apt Was That!

TM Soundararajan is a household name in Tamil Nadu. A playback singer beyond compare, he was the trademark voice of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR in countless hits. A friend of a friend often poked fun at his ‘ganeer kural’ (Tamil euphemism for being ‘high on decibels’) by labelling him as SOUNDararajan. That set me thinking. Does the name forebode your profession?

Is it an uncanny coincidence that William Wordsworth turned out to be a poet, Margaret Court became a tennis player, and Usain Bolt chose to be a sprinter? Actually, many wise people have applied their mind to this hypothesis.

Celebrated psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung saw a meaningful pattern in it. Chicago columnist Franklin Pierce Adams went a step further and coined the word ‘Aptronym’ to chronicle names that match the occupation or character of a person.

From the evidence in hand, one can safely say that aptronyms are not as commonplace as hair on Anil Kapoor’s chest or cuss words on Virat Kohli’s lips. But they are not a rare commodity either.

The New Scientist magazine was once famously flummoxed when they received an article on the Polar Regions from a Daniel Snowman and a piece on Subterranean London from one Richard Trench.

There are many more chucklesome examples on the internet. Let’s start with Sara Louise Blizzard. A weather presenter on BBC, she’s apparently weathered many a storm with her surname. Then there’s Dr. Kevin De Cock of the World Health Organisation. The genital man (oops…gentleman), predictably heads the AIDS project. Journalist William Headline was often described by reputed anchor Wolf Blitzer as having the ‘best name in news’ as everything about him was headline material.

The eeriest one I’ve heard is Dr. Russell Brain. He grew up to be an authoritative neurologist. Another name that’s likely to make you go ‘good heavens’ is Alan Heavens. He’s a renowned professor at the Imperial College London teaching astrophysics!

Everyone’s favourite is Sue Yoo. She’s currently the legal director at Verizon. From what one hears the serial digs at her name made her consider turning a lawyer. At the other end of the crime spectrum is Christopher Coke. He’s a Jamaican drug lord with cocaine literally in his veins. They say his dad Lester Coke was an even bigger snorter. I’ll sign off with Thomas Crapper. True to his name, he founded a company that made the flushing toilet ubiquitous. If that shit didn’t unnerve you, nothing else will.