Talk of the Devil-Bird1
International Names for the Common Swift
Swifts are to Swallows rather as Austrians are to Germans or Ukrainians are to Russians: despite being quite distinct and worthy of interest and respect in their own right, they are often confused with their more famous and more numerous cousins. This confusion between Swifts and Swallows has a long and some might even say honorable history, because it can be found in centuries-old translations of the Bible: in Luther’s German Bible and the English King James Bible inspired by it, for example:
Isaiah 38:14 Ich winselte wie ein Kranich und wie ein Schwalbe und girrte wie eine Taube.2
Like a crane or a Swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove.3
Jeremiah 8:7 Ein Storch unter dem Himmel weiss seine Zeit, eine Turteltaube, Kranich und
Schwalbe merken ihre Zeit.
Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the Swallow observe the time of their coming.
In each case “Schwalbe” or “Swallow” should actually be translated “Mauersegler” or “Swift”, though in fact the situation is even more complicated than that. In modern Hebrew, “Swift” is written סיס sys and pronounced siis, but in Biblical Hebrew it is written סוס sws. That would be pronounced suus and would literally mean “horse”, and although there has obviously been a scribal mistake, the text of the Hebrew Bible is sacred and can no longer be altered. The solution, as it is for many other mistakes in the Hebrew Bible, is to mark the reading as defective and supply the correct one in a footnote. So we have suus, or rather siis, written sws, but meaning sys, with the clear and unambiguous meaning of “Swift”. Or do we?
In fact, no, we don’t. Suus in the Hebrew Bible is translated “crane” in the passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah quoted from above; the word translated as “Swift” is עגור ‘aguur, which the revised King James translates as “crane”.4 This additional confusion was helped by the fact that ‘aguur seems to come from a verb meaning “to twitter”. Accordingly, some modern translations, like the New Living Translation of of 1996, simply reverse the old confusion:
Isaiah 38:14 Delirious, I chattered like a swallow or a crane, and then I moaned like a mourning dove.
But whatever the confusion in translations from ancient Hebrew, in modern Hebrew “Swift” is unambiguously siis and seems to be only slightly less unambiguously a case of onomatopoeia; that is, the word imitates the sound of a Swift’s unmistakably odd and even eerie cries: seece seece seece.
Onomatopeia is found elsewhere in names for the Swift: in Russian, for example, where “Swift” is strizh and perhaps also in Swiss German, where “Swift” is Spyr. Russian, like Latin and Greek, is an Indo-European language, and the Russian word is suggestively similar to the Latin strix (genitive strigis), which means both “screech-owl” and “witch” and is related to the Greek verb (σ)τριζω (s)trizo, which means “to screech, squeak” of animals and ghosts. Swifts too have been associated with the supernatural, perhaps because of their black plumage, their cries, and some of their more unusual habits, like ascending into the sky at dusk and never landing except to breed. These supernatural associations may explain some older words used for Swifts in English: devil-bird, deviling, swingdevil (or swing devil), devil’s screecher, and devil Swallow.5
But the Swift is also named for less unusual aspects of its behavior. Some names are based on the observation that Swifts clamber about freely on walls and other vertical surfaces. So we have German Mauersegler, literally “wall-sailor”, and its cognates in other Germanic languages: mursejler in Danish and múrsvölungur in Icelandic, for example. In Swedish and Norwegian, on the other hand, Swifts clamber about not on walls but on towers: hence the names tornseglare and tårnsvale, respectively. In the Norwegian and Icelandic names the old confusion with Swallows is still present, because the second part of both múrsvölungur and tårnsvale literally means “Swallow”. And in fact the Swedish name tornseglare is a recent adaptation of the older and still more common word tornsvala, literally meaning a “tower-Swallow”. Swedish ornithologists have tried to remove the old confusion by reworking the popular language, as have their colleagues in other parts of Scandinavia: in Danish, for example, mursejler now exists beside mursvale, “wall-Swallow”.
In Dutch, another Germanic language, “Swallow” turns up again in gierzwaluw, but the first part of the name, gier also means both “vulture” and, rather oddly, “liquid manure”. Some etymologists suggest that the first part of gierzwaluw comes from neither word but from the Dutch verb gieren, meaning “to scream” or (of the wind) “to howl” and presumably used of the Swift’s cries. However, there is also a Dutch word giervalk, used for the brown-speckled white falcon Falco rusticolus and related to both the English “gyrfalcon” (or gerfalcon) and the German Gerfalke. The Duden Deutsches Universal Wörterbuch A-Z says the first part of Gerfalke comes from geiri, meaning keilförmiger Streifen, or “wedge-shaped stripes”,6 but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it comes from Geier, “vulture”, which derives in its turn from Gier, or “greed”.7 For obvious reasons, vultures have long been associated with death and the recycling of the human body and if the Dutch word gierzwaluw did originally mean “vulture-Swallow”, perhaps this has something to do with some curious symbolism used by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (?1450-1519). In his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500) Bosch seems to have used Swifts to represent souls caught in the endless cycle of reincarnation.
In the most widely used Germanic language of all, however, Swifts are no longer confused with Swallows and similar genera in the way they once were: old names for the Swift in English include devil swallow, crane swallow, hawk swallow, black martin, and screech martin.8 Nowadays in standard English they called Swifts after perhaps the most obvious fact about them. Swifts are swift: they fly very fast. So standard etymologies say, at least, though perhaps the name is partly onomatopoeic too: “Swift” is phonetically similar to the Hebrew siis, Russian strizh, and Swiss-German Spyr. The earliest citation of Swift in the Oxford English Dictionary9 is from Walter Charleton’s Onomasticon Zoicon of 1668, which refers to the “House-marten [sic] or Swift”.10 As the older English name “black martin” demonstrates, Swifts have been confused with Martins too, but although the word “martin” comes from French, the French for Martin is now hirondelle, which also means “Swallow”: the House Martin (Delichon urbica) is hirondelle de fenêtre, or “window-swallow”, for example, and the Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) is hirondelle de rivage, or “shore-swallow”.
Martin-pêcheur and Martin roselin, on the other hand, mean Kingfisher and Starling respectively, while the modern French word for Swift is martinet. This word has also been used in English and is related to “martlet”, an older word for Swift that is still used in heraldry and that most famously appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605-6):
Banquo: This guest of summer,
But the meaning of “martlet” in this passage is ambiguous and some commentators suggest it refers to the House Martin (Delicon urbica) rather than the Swift. “Martinet”, also once used in English for the Swift, had another meaning too: “the demon who had the office of summoning witches to their assemblies”,12 which echoes English words like “devil-bird” and perhaps also the Dutch gierzwaluw.
These supernatural associations disappear in other important languages derived from Latin. In Italian the Swift is called the rondone, which is obviously related to ròndine, or “Swallow”, and is obviously derived from Latin hirundo, “Swallow”. In Spanish the Swift is called the vencejo or oncejo, which one on-line Spanish dictionary explains as deriving “de falce, hoz, por la forma de sus dedos”, that is, deriving “from sickle, because of the shape of its toes”.13 This seems a mistake: it’s the shape of the Swift’s wings that are much more obviously sickle-shaped, as can be seen from the definition of Mauersegler in the Duden Deutsches Universal Wörterbuch A-Z:
Mauersegler, der: der Schwalbe ähnliche Vogel mit schwarzem Gefieder, gegabaltem Schwanz u. sehr langen, sichelförmigen Flügeln.14
Swift: the Swallow-like bird with black plumage, forked tail, and very long, sickle-shaped wings.
Some species of Falcon have sickle-shaped wings too, which is why some etymologies derive their name from the Latin falx, “sickle”: the journey from Latin to English “falcon” (and German Falke) seems straightfoward. The journey from Latin falx, “sickle”, to Spanish vencejo, “Swift”, on the other hand, seems tortuous, but then Latin hirundo, “Swallow”, became Spanish golondrina. Spanish is the most wayward of the daughters of Latin and one of its wayward ways is that it has two perfectly distinct words for “Swift” and “Swallow”, unlike French, Italian, or Portuguese, where “Swift” is andorinhão and “Swallow” is the very similar andorinha (the two words are sometimes expanded andorinhão-preto/negro, meaning “black swift”, Apus apus, and andorinha-das-chaminés, meaning “swallow-of-the-chimneys”). Perhaps the confusion between Swifts, Swallows, and Martins in these languages is an example of the decay of learning that followed the triumph of Christianity. In scholarly Latin the distinction was clearly recognized, as can be seen from the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). He wrote about Swifts in his famous Natural History, a compendium of Graeco-Roman facts and folklore about plants and animals, and he used the name scientists would adopt nearly two millennia later: Apus, which literally means “the footless one” and comes from the Greek a-, “without”, and pous, “foot”. In the original Latin, the section devoted to Swifts runs like this:
Plurimum volant quae apodes, quia careant usu pedum, ab aliis cypseli appellantur, hirundinum specie. Nidificant in scopulis. Hae sunt quae toto mari cernuntur, nec umquam tam longo naves tamque continuo cursu recedunt a terra, ut non circumvolitent eas apodes. Cetera genera residunt et insistunt; his quies nisi in nido nulla: aut pendent aut iacent. (Liber X, lv, 114)15
This translates more or less literally as:
Particularly strong fliers are the birds some call Apodes, because they lack the use of the feet, and others call Cypseli, a kind of Swallow. They nest in crags. These are the ones seen over the entire sea, nor do ships ever leave the land by such a long and uninterrupted course that Apodes are not circling around them. Other kinds of Swallow land and stand upright; for these there is no rest except in the nest: either they are on the wing or they are lying down.16
The English translation made by Philemon Holland in 1601 expanded this a little and called Swifts by their French name:
MARTINETS, which the Greekes call Apodes (because they have little or no use of their feet) and others, Cypseli, are very good of wing, and flie most of all others without rest. And in very truth, a kind of Swallowes they be. They build in rocks and stonie cliffes. And these be they and no other, that are seene evermore in the sea: for bee the ships never so remote from the land, saile they never so fast and farre off, yee shall have these Martinets alwaies flying about them. All kinds else of Swallowes and other birds, do sometime light, settle, and perch: these never rest, but when they bee in their neast. For either they seeme to hang, or else lie along …17
Aristotle was one of the “Greekes” who used the name “Apodes” (the plural of apus). He wrote about them in his History of Animals (c. 350 BC):
Some birds have feet of little power, and are therefore called Apodes. This little bird is powerful on the wing; and, as a rule, birds that resemble it are weak-footed and strong-winged, such as the Swallow and the drepanis or Alpine Swift; for all these birds resemble one another in their habits and in their plumage, and may easily be mistaken one for another. (The apus is to be seen at all seasons, but the drepanis only after rainy weather in summer; for this is the time when it is seen and captured, though, as a general rule, it is a rare bird.)18
We should note, of course, that although Aristotle and Pliny the Elder recognized that the Swift was a distinct species, they still classified it as a kind of Swallow. Apodes haven’t only been confused or conflated with Swallows, however: there is also a constellation called Apus, but as you might expect from the fact that it is very near the south celestial pole, it is not an ancient one. Nor, in fact, is it named for the Swift: the standard English translation of the name is “Bird of Paradise” and when the constellation first appeared in Bayer’s Uranometria of 1603 it was called Apus Indica, the “footless bird of India”. The name is explained like this in one guide to the constellations:
The Greater Bird of Paradise, known in India, had a magnificent white, yellow and red plumage but unsightly legs, which were cut off by the natives desiring to offer the white man only the attractive part of the bird.19
However, if we look a little to the west of India, in the Arabic-speaking world, we come across the more usual confusion with the Swallow in some of the words used for the Swift. The word used in the Qur’an, however, is ababil, and because of the reverence accorded the Qur’an this is regarded as the best of the synonyms. Indeed, it has been borrowed by the languages of other Muslim nations: for example, Swift is ebabil in Turkish. The original Arabic form, compounded with tir, meaning “bird”, is found in the Qur’an in Surah 105, Al-Fiil, “The Elephant”. This Surah is very short and runs in its entirety like this:
105, 1 Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the Companions of the Elephant? 2 Did He not make their treacherous plan go astray? 3 And He sent against them Flights of Birds [tir ababil], 4 striking them with stones of baked clay. 5 Then did He make them like an empty field of stalks and straw, (of which the corn) has been eaten up.20
A euhemerist (that is, one who tries to find natural rather than supernatural explanations for religious stories) might find it hard to match the behavior of Swifts in nature with the behavior of the tir ababil in this Surah. Swifts do carry nesting-material in their beaks, but they collect it on the wing and so it tends to be light enough to be blown into the air by the wind. However, Swallows and Martins use heavier nesting-material: mud, for example. Perhaps the sight of Swallows or Martins inadvertently dropping boluses of mud lies behind the Surah, and the ancient confusion between Swifts and similar genera of bird then explains why Swifts should have come to have a central part in a Qur’anic miracle. If so, it’s an appropriate place to finish this article. Swifts have always been confused with Swallows and probably always will be, but perhaps Swift-lovers can echo the words of Samuel Johnson:
It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.21
I’d like to thank Ulrich Tigges and the sci.lang.translation and alt.language.latin newsgroups for help with the article.
1. There is a saying in English: “Talk of the Devil and he appears”. The title of the article is a play on that.
2. From an edition of the Luther Bible published in Berlin before the First World War. In modern editions the verse sometimes reads “Wie eine Schwalbe, wie ein Kranich, so klagte ich; ich girrte wie die Taube.”
3. From the standard King James Bible.
4. Benjamin Davidson, The Analytic Hebrew & Chaldee Lexicon: Every Word & Inflection of the Hebrew Old Testament Arranged Alphabetically & with Grammatical Analyses: Also Tables of Paradigms, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, reprinted 1970.
6. Op. cit., Mannheim, Germany, 1989.
7. Oxford English Dictionary, 1991, entry for “gyrfalcon”.
9. Oxford English Dictionary, 1991, entry for “swift”.
10. Onomasticon Zoicon means something like “lexicon of animal names”.
11. “Martlet” is also used in The Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene IX.
12. Oxford English Dictionary, 1991, entry for “martinet” (2).
14. Op. cit., entry for Mauer.
16. Thanks to the alt.language.latin newsgroup for valuable help with this translation.
19. Entry for “Apus” in Constellations: A Concise Guide in Colour, Josef Klepešta and Antonín Rükl, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1969.
20. The Holy Quran, with Text, Translation and Commentary, translated and edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Islamic Propagation Centre International, Durban, South Africa (not dated).
21. A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), preface. Johnson was talking about destructive change in the English language.
(Republished with permission)
APUSlife 2005, No 2996 © 2005 Simon Whitechapel