canary, Word origins

Word origin: Canary

Two popular misconceptions about the word canary are enough to put even the most dogged linguistic sleuth off the scent.

If you’ve studied Latin, you might reasonably point out that canere means to sing.

So it must follow, mustn’t it, that this little songbird takes its name from that sing-songy verb that also gives us canto, canticle and cantata, (not to mention accent, chant and sea shanty)?

Only it doesn’t. 

Canary and canere may look and sound like lexical kissing cousins, but they come from totally different word families.

You’d be right on the money, though, if you guessed that the canary bird hails from the Canary Islands, that sunny Spanish chain off the coast of Morocco.

But if you were then to jump to the etymologically logical  conclusion that the islands must be named after the bird, then I’m afraid you’d again be twittering in the wind.

In fact, the bird is named after the islands.

And the islands are named after another beast entirely, as you can see from their coat of arms, below.

(My use of dogged at the start was a bit of a clue.)

That’s right, the little yellow birds weren’t the only native species to grace the archipelago.

Also sharing the islands when the Romans came across them were some rather big and fierce dogs. 

Dog in Latin is canis, as in canine – like those four pointy, dog-like teeth that you can feel in your mouth with your tongue right now.

And there were native people there too – the guanches – who worshipped said dogs to the point of mummifying their remains. 

And the Romans called these dog-worshippers canaari (the ones with dogs), and the island on which they found them Insula Canaria (Island of Dogs).

Today the Spanish call that island Gran Canaria and the 7-island group Islas Canarias.

The modern descendant of that ancient cantankerous canine is the presa canario or dogo canario, which means (you guessed it) Canary dog.

And so, as we near the end of this wild canary chase, we see that canary birds are named after the Canary Islands, which are named after Canary dogs.

Or not.

You see, there’s also this other theory doing the rounds…

Some believe the Romans might have named the islands after a species of  Monk seal that also lived on Gran Canaria.

Lived, note, not live. That seal is now extinct, but this drawing gives you some idea of why the Romans were moved to name it  canis marinus (dog of the sea).

So to recap: canary has much in common with birds, dogs, islands, people and seals. But nothing whatever to do with singing. 

What a bird-brained language.

Thanks to my friend Fay Clayton, whose books on etymology teach me something new every day about the fascinating origins of our words.

Posts like this will be a regular feature of this blog, and some of Fay’s books will be available for you to buy.

3 thoughts on “Word origin: Canary

  1. thanks , very helpfull

    Glad you liked it. I see you teach Dutch to Arab speakers. Did you know that English gets its word alcohol from Arabic (I guess you guys weren’t using it :-)), but that our booze comes from Dutch? I must blog on that.

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