Thursday, September 20, 2012

Go with God, Godwit


Godwits are intrinsically elegant birds and prodigious migrators, but they have one of the more etymologically befuddling names in the North American bird world. I saw a rampaging pack of Marbled Godwits at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago, where they lent class and poise to an otherwise harsh environment. 


Arriving back in Phoenix I figured, "Hey, they fly 7,000 miles nonstop while migrating. I can spend some time trying to figure out when and/or why they picked up their unusual name." 
I'm sure that flying 7,000 miles nonstop is still the more difficult task, but Godwit etymology is no picnic either.


After trading in many of my internet tokens and credits, the earliest instance of the name I could find was in a middle english dictionary entry that's actually talking about Attagens, a Mediterranean-area species of Sand Grouse. It did not lend any real reasoning or clues to the Godwit name (which I can only guess is used in a somewhat literal sense of 'God-wit': 'God-knower'). Here's the entry, from an english dictionary written in 1552:

"Attagen and Attagena, a byrde, which is found in Ionia. Thei are deceiued that take him for a woodcocke, it is most lyke a byrde called amonge vs a godwitte."

What is perhaps the most strange of all is that Grouses really don't look much like Godwits. 


These 'God-knower' birds don't look especially theological to me, at least not compared to Monk Parakeets, Northern Cardinals, or Orange Bishops. True enough, there is something heavenly, even angelic, in a 7,000 mile sustained flight, and these birds do have stunning plumage. However, I doubt the chroniclers and namers of the mid-1500s would likely have known about their migratory habits, or found them so awe-inspiring compared to Eurasian Bee-eaters or Hoopoes. Wit,' or 'witte,' could be taken to mean 'white' in old Dutch, but that doesn't really apply more than anything else.

 Despite their mysterious moniker, Godwits are great birds to observe, as I wish them well as they depart on their long journeys this fall. Go with God, Godwits.

16 comments:

  1. Great post Laurence, I love how you break down the names. Super shots too. I have only seen a single Godwit a few times.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Dan; I wish you many Godwits in the near future!

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  2. Interesting stuff Laurence! Wow, 7,000 miles nonstop...incredible!!

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    1. Yes, I cannot fly that far nonstop, nor look as good in the attempt. That's why I stay in Phoenix year-round.

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  3. They are stunning shorebirds and like you I have wondered about the origin of the name. Thanks for looking that up and reporting it to us Laurence!

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  4. Nice work, detective! I've always (by always I mean in my 3 years of birding) have found godwit to be a strange word. Glad to finally have some insight on it. Godwit Laurence?

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    1. Cheers Jen.

      I feel that if I were really Godwit Laurence, I would find more rare birds. However, you do have me thinking that 'Godwit ye' would be a good birder greeting jargon. You know, a surreptitious code so we birders could all find each other without being persecuted and fed to the lions.

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  5. Okay now Laurence....I had to dust off the religious persection of my youth....but I remember somewhere that there were Angels blowing on looooong horns. If you kind of look at them, you can maybe see it....or I'm just going crazy:) Love your shots! Happy weekend!

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    1. Ha! Good point about the trumpeting angels Chris, I can certainly see a resemblance with the Godwit bill. Happy weekend to you, sir.

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  6. Ha I'm always curious about the etymology of words. Very cool.

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    1. I wish I could've found something definitive.

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  7. Laurence, I have only seen a few of these birds in singles so it is amazing to me to see so many together. I like the idea of "Go with God." It would seem a perfect benediction for a bird that travels so far!

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  8. Skeat had the idea that godwits are 'good wights', or good creatures, probably in the good eating sense. See http://tinyurl.com/kc9axsr.

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  9. Skeat thinks it's a 'good wight', or good creature, perhaps to eat. See http://tinyurl.com/kc9axsr.

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