Say, what’s smew?

This is a cute but iffy little word, isn’t it? It brings all sorts of things to mind. Perhaps it has a smell, or perhaps it smears; maybe it mews like a kitten, or maybe it lives in a mews. It might spew from its maw. It seems small and perhaps new. It might be suited to smog or to snow or it might prefer to swim; it might like to eat s’mores or watch sumo. Who’s to know?

Well, this chap, for one:

You can see he’s a big fan of smew. Has been ever since he was a kid. The smew come over from Siberia and spend the winter in England, some of them right by where he grew up.

For those who can’t or don’t want to watch the video: a smew is a kind of little diving duck. The males are mostly white, with a striking black pattern, including a mask; the females are grey with brown heads; both of them have pointy bills and, typically, crests on their heads that would get them into the better kind of punk bars. Their calls sound like a cross between a chainsaw revving and a character from The Simpsons.

And they’ll just paddle along happily on the water, then abruptly dive in and, thereafter, resurface eating a fish. Icy water does not bother them.

OK, but… where the heck did they get this name? Why, of all the things they could be called, are they smew? And why, of all the things smew could be a name for, does it refer to these little ducks?

The answer is… no one really knows. The name has been in use since at least the 1600s. There’s another word, smee, that is used for several ducks, including the wigeon and the smew, and smew may be related to that, though they showed up at about the same time; smee in its turn is probably related to smeath, which is another word for the same thing and has been around about as long. Smew and smee may also be related to Dutch smient (which means ‘wigeon’) and German Schmeiente or Schmünte (which mean ‘wild duck’).

And… well, that’s all. The word might as well have flown in from Siberia. It didn’t, though; when they’re in Russia, the locals call them луток, lutok.

One response to “smew

  1. I think I prefer lutok. It sounds less like something you’re going to have to clean up.

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