Fascinating story from the BBC about how falconry – hunting with birds of prey – influenced Shakespeare and the English language generally.
As a falconer, for example, tightly pinches the bird’s jesses, or tethers, under his or her thumb to stop the bird flying away at random, we get the term ‘under your thumb’, meaning controlled, although the term nowadays is more common when describing hen-pecked husbands than hunting birds of prey. (Hen-pecked also having its roots in medieval observation, of course.)
Another phrase we get from falconry is “wrapped around your little finger” which is when the bird’s owner uses his or her little finger in conjunction with the thumb to hold on tight to the bird’s jesses.
When the bird’s eyes and head are covered with a small leather hood to keep it from distraction until it is needed we get the term ‘hoodwinked’.
This rare jargon of English 16th century falconry entered our colloquial language thanks in part to one amateur falconer, William Shakespeare.
Experts still argue about how much falconry Shakespeare actually practiced in real life, but he was no doubt personally acquainted with the sport, as his plays carry more than 50 references to the sport.
Macbeth advises “scarfing the eye”, a reference to hoodwinking a falcon to prevent the bird (his lady) from distraction. He continues the falconry metaphor with holding the lady back on her perch while other falcons prepare to “rouse”, or take flight. French terms like “rouse” (from the Old French ruser, when a hawk shakes its feathers) entered English with the Norman invasion of 1066. But it is Shakespeare who helped forge a new meaning: “to rouse” as in “awaken”.
“Eyes like a hawk,” is well-known, of course, and with good reason. A hawk’s eyesight is ten times stronger than a human’s eyesight: like reading a newspaper across a football field.
There are lots of other examples of words transferring from medieval falconry to modern English.
Bate Birds beating their wings while still tethered; from the Old French batre (to beat), eventually “to hold back, restrain”, as in a bated breath.
Fed up A bird that is no longer hungry has no incentive to hunt.
Booze From the 14th-century verb bouse (Dutch origin), to drink excessively. A bird that drinks too much water will not hunt, similar to those who are “fed up”.
Haggard A wild hawk that’s difficult to train. One of Shakespeare’s favourite terms.
In Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, the male lead Petruchio likens taming his new bride to training a hawk:
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call …
A falcon or hawk that is fully gorged, or “fed up” will no longer work for her master. On the other hand, a “haggard” is a wild hawk that may never be fully trained. Shakespeare uses the term five times to describe different women in his plays, which in later English came to mean wild, unkempt and dishevelled.
What’s your favourite piece of curious etymology, Dear Reader?