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Are chickadees and "tits" of the same species?

Dear Matthew Alice:

A friend from Scotland told me of the coal tits that frequented her back yard. The bird book reveals that Europe abounds in tits: blue tits, marsh tits, great tits, willow tits, long-tailed tits. They greatly resemble our New World chickadees. Many are in the same genus as the chickadee: Parus. I jumped to the conclusion that our puritanical nation was unwilling to import the name "tit" for common birds. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was wrong. "Tit," the bird, first saw print in 1706. "Chickadee" was born in 1838 in the journal of Henry David Thoreau. "Tit" did not refer to a woman's breast until 1928. How could one man, who was not widely appreciated in his time, have induced all the pre-1838 immigrants to abandon "tit" for "chickadee"?

-- David Rawlins, Pauma Valley

Matmail:

A follow-up on the tit-chickadee conundrum. Maybe I was right the first time. Now I find in an on-line dictionary that "tit" comes from old English "[more at 'teat']" from before the 12th Century. I hope you can resolve this.

-- David Rawlins, Pauma Valley

Illustrative incident: MA plays tourist in Louisiana. Bright-red birds everywhere. "Wha'dya call 'em?" MA inquires. Regarding MA as if MA has three heads, local yokel says, "Redbirds," though her tone says, "Redbirds, obviously, you Yankee idiot." MA is not fooled and later learns they are officially tanagers -- but I have to admit, "redbirds" is more logical. Take my word for it, virtually every common songbird has been or is still known by dozens of colloquial names. Since 1888 the American Ornithologists Union has used genetics, anatomy, and reproductive behavior to classify and name North American birds. And even the AOU changes its mind with annoying frequency. (Though the birds and the baseball team didn't seem to notice when scientists briefly did away with "Baltimore oriole" in the 1970s.)

Thoreau did not name the chickadee. The OED citation is just one of the first written references to a name already used by the local yokels. It's derived from the bird's distinctive song, a high-pitched chick-a-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Early colonists in the know may have called the chickadee a tom-tit, its English common name, but the first Americans had more on their minds than songbird taxonomy. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds says "tit" (the bird) comes from the Old Icelandic word titr, "something small." "Tit" (not the bird) was/is a legit word; we titter at it because we're twits. Dare I say it? There's also a sea bird known as a booby (from the Spanish bobo, a fool).

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Dear Matthew Alice:

A friend from Scotland told me of the coal tits that frequented her back yard. The bird book reveals that Europe abounds in tits: blue tits, marsh tits, great tits, willow tits, long-tailed tits. They greatly resemble our New World chickadees. Many are in the same genus as the chickadee: Parus. I jumped to the conclusion that our puritanical nation was unwilling to import the name "tit" for common birds. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was wrong. "Tit," the bird, first saw print in 1706. "Chickadee" was born in 1838 in the journal of Henry David Thoreau. "Tit" did not refer to a woman's breast until 1928. How could one man, who was not widely appreciated in his time, have induced all the pre-1838 immigrants to abandon "tit" for "chickadee"?

-- David Rawlins, Pauma Valley

Matmail:

A follow-up on the tit-chickadee conundrum. Maybe I was right the first time. Now I find in an on-line dictionary that "tit" comes from old English "[more at 'teat']" from before the 12th Century. I hope you can resolve this.

-- David Rawlins, Pauma Valley

Illustrative incident: MA plays tourist in Louisiana. Bright-red birds everywhere. "Wha'dya call 'em?" MA inquires. Regarding MA as if MA has three heads, local yokel says, "Redbirds," though her tone says, "Redbirds, obviously, you Yankee idiot." MA is not fooled and later learns they are officially tanagers -- but I have to admit, "redbirds" is more logical. Take my word for it, virtually every common songbird has been or is still known by dozens of colloquial names. Since 1888 the American Ornithologists Union has used genetics, anatomy, and reproductive behavior to classify and name North American birds. And even the AOU changes its mind with annoying frequency. (Though the birds and the baseball team didn't seem to notice when scientists briefly did away with "Baltimore oriole" in the 1970s.)

Thoreau did not name the chickadee. The OED citation is just one of the first written references to a name already used by the local yokels. It's derived from the bird's distinctive song, a high-pitched chick-a-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Early colonists in the know may have called the chickadee a tom-tit, its English common name, but the first Americans had more on their minds than songbird taxonomy. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds says "tit" (the bird) comes from the Old Icelandic word titr, "something small." "Tit" (not the bird) was/is a legit word; we titter at it because we're twits. Dare I say it? There's also a sea bird known as a booby (from the Spanish bobo, a fool).

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