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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a shrike

Despite unassumingly resembling dapper-looking thrushes, shrikes are notoriously bloodthirsty birds that use the spikes of thorn bushes and trees to store a larder-like collection of impaled insects, lizards and small mammals for later consumption. For that reason, they’ve earned a clutch of rather macabre nicknames for themselves, including murder-bird, butcher-bird, murdering-pie, and wariangle.

Murder-bird and butcher-bird (the latter probably the most familiar of these four) are self explanatory. Murdering-pie is slightly less straightforward: in this instance, pie means ‘pied’, in the same way it does in magpie (likely in reference to the great grey shrike’s striking blocks of black, white and grey plumage).

As we explained on Twitter, wariangle is an even more peculiar name thought literally to mean ‘destroying-angel’. Wariangle dates back to the Middle English period at least; shrikes are mentioned by this name in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. An Old English equivalent, weargincel, has been proposed but not authoritatively sourced quite yet—though the existence of an earlier Germanic form, warchengil, suggests the name was indeed likely in use in Anglo-Saxon England.

Whether the accurate meaning here was truly ‘destroying-angel’ is questionable too, as this might be a folk etymological interpretation of one of these early forms, but it’s a certainly plausible explanation nonetheless.

As for shrike itself? That’s an onomatopoeic name, used exclusively of shrikes since the 1500s, and of any bird in general with a harsh, grating call since the Old English period. It’s fairly befitting, then, that it’s is an anagram of shriek.


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