Friday, December 19, 2014

Day Twelve of Nitpicking The Twelve Days Of Christmas

Here it is.  Day twelve.

I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, "I can't wait to find out how a "calling bird" is actually some kind of fish."

Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not a fish.

"So then what is a "calling bird?""

It's a sexist nickname given to old-time telephone operators.

"Why, is it 1915 London already?  Here, let me transfer you to (555) GET-LOST."

Actually, the term "bird" has meant a maiden or young girl in writings dating as far back as 1300, but historians believe that the "newer" use of it for a young woman is completely separate from the older use.

But really, the term "calling bird" is recent, first used in Frederic Austin's 1909 version.  Before that, it was "colly" birds, an English expression for "black."  It actually means "to blacken, as with coal dust," and the word has a lot of use around old timey chimney sweeps.

That's right, your four "calling" birds are simply four common blackbirds.  Get twenty more, and you can bake them into a pie for your true love.

"Diamonds? Chocolates?  Pfft, show her you really care with birds she can find almost anywhere in the countryside."
This begs the question of "what's so great about blackbirds?"

Well....again, you have to go back further.  Digging into some renditions from the 1800s, you can find the fourth gift referred to as "canary birds" (which makes more sense), "collie birds," "colley birds," "colour'd birds," "corley birds," and "curley birds."

Colley, colour'd, and even corley make some sense in how the language shifted and changed, but "curley?"  Did people singing the song sing "collie bird" and picture a loyal bird that would herd sheep?

Canaries, on the other hand, make the most sense of all.  Canaries, of course, are native to the Canary Islands, and if I'm talking about the Canary Islands, I have to mention my favorite trivia bit about them.  They aren't named after the birds.

It's widely believed that the root of "Canary" is the same root as "canine," stemming from packs of wild dogs that lived on the islands long ago.  It's not clear whether the dogs were transferred there (the islands have seen activity going all the way back to ancient times) or not, but the name really does translate out to "Island of the Dogs."  The dog species that came out of the islands are a pretty impressive species, too.

Suddenly "collie birds" makes a bit more sense.

Canaries would be a fancy thing to own in 1800s France or England, however, especially since we know how the English were so well minded of things outside their own country (we're probably lucky they aren't called Wales Birds).    Domestic canaries weren't bred until the 17th century, quickly becoming the favorite "look at the fancy thing I bought" coffee table discussion item amongst nobility in Spain and England.

From Wikipedia (so it must be true), it seems that monks controlled the supply of domesticated canaries for quite some time and were able to drive up the price quite a bit.  I believe even today canaries still carry a level of "class" with them in the eyes of bird owners, lending more validity that they'd be a gift to someone who can also afford to hire "lords and ladies" to perform.

So that's it for the Twelve Days of Christmas!  I'll be taking next week off to rebuild my backlog of posts ready for use on busy days, so I hope everybody has a great Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate!

No comments: