This is a pretty little word for a pretty little bird.

Well, yes, not all macaws are that little. Macaws range from about a foot to about a metre in size; the hyacinth macaw has a wingspan of 4 feet. So all are bigger than some birds, and some are pretty big, but there are many bigger birds, and all macaws are smaller than, say, I am. So there.

But they are pretty: their feathers are the kinds of colours that have long been used to advertise cameras, film, and TV sets. I associate them especially with Kodachrome, not so much because of specific ads but because they are well suited to the colour profile of the late great slide film, and vice versa. The feathers shine brightly.

But do you find macaw a pretty little word? Well, it is pretty little: it’s only 5 letters long. But it’s also just pretty. You may not like the sound, if it reminds you too much of the crow’s call “caw!” But you may like it well enough if you think it starts with a warm “mm” and then knocks off the back with a “k” as in call and kiss. And of course if you like Scottish names, it does sound a bit like one – ironically, since macaws are certainly not indigenous to Scotland.

But beyond the sound, look at the word. The m and w are, in their basic shape, rotations of each other, like wings pointing up and down. The vowels are both a, which has a shape that in some type faces can be reminiscent of a parrot’s head (you may think that a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always thought Roman type a’s look like perching birds). The c is crisp and clean, an incomplete circle. The word as a whole is nicely balanced, and there really is a partial rotational symmetry to it. In fact, you can write it turned 180˚ using IPA symbols: [ʍɐɔɐɯ] or [ʍɒɔɒɯ]. But except for the [ʍ], which is a voiceless [w], all the others are vowels, mostly in the back of the mouth; if you say either version you will make a sound as though someone were working in your mouth.

On the other hand, you could probably teach a macaw to make the sound too. Macaws are among the birds that can imitate human speech. They’re playful, intelligent, and social. You could certainly teach one to say “macaw” – though the name isn’t necessarily onomatopoeic. Actually, we get it from Portuguese macau (not related to the island Macao), which seems to have come from a Tupi word (the Tupi are a Brazilian indigenous group).

Where will you find macaws? In the wild they are in South and Central America. In zoos and private homes, all over the world. Where will you find macaw? Flying from the paper through your eyes, off your tongue, through your lips, and into the bright air.

One response to “macaw

  1. I love this site! Thanks for your work in bringing these posts to word-grammar freaks like me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s