jackdaw

When I was in elementary school, one of the kinds of instructional materials I found most fascinating was something called a Jackdaw. I capitalize it because – though I didn’t know it at the time – it’s a brand name, the name of the publisher, in fact. Jackdaws were – still are, I’m sure, as they’re still in business (www.jackdaw.com) – fascinating collections of facsimiles of primary source materials about the various historical events they covered.

I had no idea at the time why they were called that. When one is six years old (and even much older), one may tend to accept the arbitrary nature of new names, assuming that there must be a good reason and perhaps eventually the reason will be revealed. Perhaps it was because they were in a jacket, like a Duo-Tang, and chock-full?

More likely, of course, is that they were acquisitive and loquacious. Jackdaws, like magpies, are known for stealing all manner of things and hoarding them; they are also know to be, well, not so much loquacious as garrulous – they chatter on and on, and can also be taught to say words.

So if you call a person a jackdaw, that means you think him or her to be kleptomanical, garrulous, a hoarder, or some combination of the preceding. And thus a folder that has collected a variety of items pertinent to a topic might fittingly be called a Jackdaw, overlooking the foolish connotations. It occurs to me that it also wouldn’t be such a bad name for the sentences known as pangrams, which have collected all twenty-six letters of the alphabet (e.g., Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz – my, doesn’t that sound a little, ah, you know). And Cambridge University calls its administrative database Jackdaw. It seems there’s a bit of a collection of jackdaws out there.

There is, mind you, a much larger collection of jack words – a veritable jackpot. Jack – from the name – has long since been a byword for the common fellow, and a name to be applied generically. Who leaves frost on your window? Jack Frost. Whose glowing eyes and crazed grin greet you on Hallowe’en? Jack-o’-lantern. Who can fix your broken Jack-in-the-box? Perhaps a Jack-of-all-trades. “Did the ship go down with all hands?” “Every man Jack.” “But doesn’t that bother you?” “I’m all right, Jack.” And there are several jack animals, including jackrabbit, jackass, jack salmon, Jack Russell terriers (OK, that’s an eponym), and of course jackdaw.

Jack is such a square, sturdy name to my taste, with a bit of a kick or a hack, sounding not unlike the call of the jackdaw. It begins with that first letter of so many first names, J, and ends with the open-beaked, angular k. It may have come from Jacques – although that’s French for James while Jack is a nickname for John – but it may have come from Jankin and Jackin, pet forms of the Dutch Jan.

And why jackdaw? Well, for the same reason as jackass, more or less, I suppose. That is to say, we could always just say daw. That’s the older, simpler name for the bird. It’s a Germanic-derived word – it’s first recorded in English in the 1400s, and almost before you could say “Jack Robinson” there was a jack on it.

And what, by the way, is the bird? A little black thing, Corvus monedula – related to crows and ravens (and why not, if it’s known for crowin’ and ravin’ like it’s stark mad?). It’s very gregarious, mates for life, and has flocks with a strict pecking order.

So the name itself is put together of two bits, this old daw and this generic jack of all sorts of trading. And it’s such a quintessentially English thing. Not just because of its origins, but because English is a jackdaw of a language if ever there was one: swiping bits from all over, learning to mimic new words, and generally not shutting up.

5 responses to “jackdaw

  1. Love the bit about English “swiping bits from all over, learning to mimic new words, and generally not shutting up.” A great description of our native tongue!

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