This is an old column of mine that I stumbled across while googling myself out of morbid couriosity – and since it’s almost Christmas and since I have fond memories of a wayward squab I parented named Walter the Pigeon. I offer it here as a Christmas present to my much revered readers. Thank you for reading. Without you, I am not whole.
I am a fan of common pigeons, not the fancy domestic breeds. Domestic birds are nice but I am in awe of the urban pigeons, the rock doves who swoop and soar independent above our heads. Originally nesting in cliffs these close cousins to mourning doves have shared our homes since we’ve started building homes. They have not only survived contact with humans they have thrived upon it.
Curiously their success has earned our contempt. They were once offered to Gods as proof of devotion, their nesting in the eves of temples was a sign of God’s favor because the priests found their squab a source of meat even in the dead of winter. But today we mock and abuse them and rather than clean up our trash that feeds their numbers we even poison them. Why do we hate what we once revered? After years of research (well, weeks) I may have stumbled upon part of the answer; it’s all a question of language.
Once upon a time there were a happy-go-lucky set of blond heads known as the Saxons who farmed the rocky northern coasts of Europe. Their general word for bird was “duffla-dopa”, meaning a creature which dives from the sky.
Each year after the spring planting the Saxons would vacation in exotic places like England where they slaughtered the native Angles (Angle-land, get it?) burned their villages and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. Eventually the Saxons took such a liking to England they decided to steal the entire country.
Mixed with the local language “duffla-dopa” was slowly shortened to “duffla”, and then hardened to “duva” and within a few centuries was being pronounced as “dove”. But it now referred to only that family of avians with big chests and little heads, natives to both the Saxon homeland and England as well.
And then just when the Saxons had gotten England fixed up just the way they liked it who should arrive uninvited but William The Conqueror, who brought with him the feudal system and a big chunk of French-ified Latin.
Now the Romans, who invented Latin, also invented arches and concrete and office parties, lots of stuff so practical that their Latin names have often survived with little alteration; like the word “pipio”, which was a hollow tube that carried water. A Roman “pipio” is our “pipe”.
Take a length of pipio, poke some holes in it and blow on one end and you have a musical instrument the Romans also called a pipio,(a piccolo), which produces a chirping sound similar to that made by the baby birds found in nests in Roman temples and civic buildings, so the Romans called the birds in those urban nests “pipio” as well.
Then the Roman Empire collapsed and Latin went down the pipio. Europe dissolved into a babble of tongues until the year 800 when Charlemagne had his bureaucrats translate the old Latin red tape into French red tape for his new empire. It was then that the feathered “pipio” acquired the new snooty pronunciation “pijon”. And it was this name that the Normans carried across the channel in 1066 where the Anglo-Saxon hard mouths mis-pronounced it, “pidge-on”.
So in England there were now two words for one family of birds: The Norman pigeon and the Anglo-Saxon dove. This was not the only example of pairing pronouns that developed from the class and language division in the new England; there were Saxon “swine” on the farm that became Norman “pork” when they got to the table; the peasants tended Saxon “sheep” but the nobility ate French “mutton”.
Words were the weapons in this linguistic gorilla warfare between the invader and the occupied. And since no self respecting nobleman would stoop to learn a skill such as writing, it fell to the brightest Saxon sons of England to record and define the English language at its birth. And that is why pigeons came out of the Norman invasion with such bad Saxon press.
Dove was a Saxon word so the birds that lived in the forests where the Saxon peasants toiled. So anytime a literary bird needed a translation to imply devotion, gentleness and love, the bird in question became a dove.
Pigeon was a Norman word and was attached to birds who lived in the cities and atop castles where the Norman overlords resided. Whenever a Saxon scribe came across a literary bird used to symbolize stupidity, waste, foolishness and disease that bird became a pigeon.
There is no logic in this. A pigeon is no less devoted to its mate than a dove and makes no less a loving parent. Pigeons and doves are both suprisingly bright birds and lovely flyers. Still, tell people you are having doves killed and you will be assaulted. Call the victims pigeons and everyone sympathizes with your problem.
And that is the damage language can do when it’s words are used as weapons…against birds or people.