If you have just read this title yourself, you’re probably already asking, ‘Who is she?’ If someone is reading it to you, you will think, quite rightly, that I’m writing about names that are incorrectly or unsuitably applied. Wikipedia tells us that ‘misnomers often arise because something was named long before its correct nature was known, or because an earlier form of something has been replaced by a later form to which the name no longer suitably applies’.
English language was my favourite subject at school and, even though I don’t always succeed, I try to be fairly accurate in anything I speak or write (I’m almost a Geordie so, by definition, not perfect). I can usually spot an error a mile away, an apostrophe in the wrong place, a roe ‘dear’ or a grizzly ‘bare’. M&S used to have a massive sign in their cafes which, grammatically, made no sense. Yesterday, I was reading a book written by a friend. Its ‘Acknowledgment’ read, ‘Many thanks to Stefan Luciw who kindly proof read my manuiscript for me…’ It’s a shame they didn’t get him to proof-read the acknowledgement. However, unless you are a purist, such simple typographical errors are easily overlooked. There are misnomers in the world of nature though, that can be very confusing.
I constantly find myself explaining to audiences that black bears are not always black, brown bears are not always brown, and a black-headed gull has a white head in winter and a brown head in summer. If you’re looking at a gull with a black head, it’s probably a Mediterranean gull. A killer whale (Orca) is not a whale. It’s the largest of the dolphin family. A Guadalupe fur seal isn’t a seal, it’s a sea lion. Long-tailed tits are not true ‘tits’ and bearded tits, also called bearded reedlings, are more closely related to larks. A little blue heron is white until its first spring and a bald eagle isn’t bald. The word ‘bald’ derives from an old English word ‘balde’, meaning ‘white’. Confused? Probably.
Which brings me to December and Christmas. I dare say that almost every house in our village has a Christmas card with a robin ‘red-breast’ gracing the front. In the 1960’s the robin became Britain’s unofficial national bird following a vote in ’The Times’ newspaper and in 2015, the robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird. Ornithologist David Lindo, who launched the campaign to find our favourite, said the robin was “entwined into our national psyche” as a “Christmas card pin-up”.
But a robin’s breast surely isn’t red, but more like orange. This is a typical Miss Gnomer! We have had robins in this country for hundreds of years and although the first box of oranges is believed to have arrived in Southampton from Portugal in the year 1290, the colour ‘orange’, derived from the fruit, came into common use only in the late 15th/early 16th century.
Which is just as well because ‘robin orange breast’ doesn’t quite have the same ring.