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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) typically black-and-white flightless bird native to the southern hemisphere

penguin wings outstretched

You might have seen this frankly brilliant fact pop up over on the Twitter feed this week:

Poor old penguins. It can’t be much fun humpling around in sub-zero temperatures avoiding being eaten by seals all day. But then along comes Oliver Goldsmith—whose seven-volume History of the Earth and Animated Nature is the source of that quote—to tell us that eighteenth century sailors called them arse-feet. It’s just not fair really, is it?

Not that it was only the penguins, though. The nickname arse-feet dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was originally another name for the little grebe, and over the centuries it’s been used in reference to a whole host of other species, all of which had one thing in common—the position of their feet noticeably close to their derrieres. Frankly, it gives a whole new meaning to having a boot up the arse. (Shameless plug: there’s more on all this in the HH factbook, Word Drops.)

But if that’s the history of arse-feet, what about penguin?

Well, the word penguin also dates back to the sixteenth century, with the earliest record we know about coming from the logbook of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. According to Drake’s admiral, Francis Fletcher, as he sailed through the Magellan Strait in 1577:

[20 August 1577] In these Islands we found great reliefe and plenty of good victualls, for infinite were the number of fowle, which the Welsh men named Pengwin … [The birds] breed and lodge at land, and in the day tyme goe downe to the sea to feed, being soe fatt that they can but goe, and their skins cannot be taken from their bodyes without tearing off the flesh, because of their exceeding fatnes.

Yep, not only did the penguins have to contend with waddling around in sub-zero temperatures and being called arse-feet, but Drake and his crew decided to announce their presence in the Southern Ocean by eating every penguin they could lay their hands on.

But then there’s this:

New found land is in a temperate Climate… There are Sea Guls, Murres, Duckes, wild Geese, and many other kinds of birdes store, too long to write, especially at one Island named Penguin, where wee may driue them on a planke into our ship as many as shall lade her. These birdes are also called Penguins, and cannot flie.

If you know anything about natural history, that quote might strike you as a little odd—penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, so what the dickens were they doing in Newfoundland?

Well, that second quote isn’t from Drake’s logbook, but from a letter, written on 13 November 1578, by a Bristol merchant sailor named Anthony Parkhurst to the geographer Richard Hakluyt. And the penguins Parkhurst is talking about aren’t the same penguins we know today—in fact, the penguins he’s talking about haven’t been seen by anybody for 150 years.

Parkhurst’s Newfoundland penguins were in actual fact great auks—tall, flightless, black-and-white seabirds (whose arses were just as close to their feet) that were once native to much of the North Atlantic. Although the great auk is now extinct (and the story of its slow demise makes for a sobering read, alas) in Drake and Fletcher’s day they were still widely abundant—so abundant, in fact, that as Parkhurst points out they could be driven in huge numbers from “Penguin Island”, along a plank, and onto a ship to provide food for the crew.

drawing of two great auk

Wikimedia Commons

Fletcher’s quote might predate Parkhurst’s by over a year, but it’s thought that the birds Parkhurst wrote about were the original “penguins”—after all, for there to be a place called “Penguin Island” in 1578, we can presume the word penguin was in use in reference to the great auk long before then. Drake’s crew, meanwhile, would have presumably been familiar with the sea birds they knew from back home, and so when they saw remarkably similar flightless black-and-white birds in the equally freezing cold waters of the Southern Ocean in 1577, they either mistook them for the great auks they knew from home, or simply referred to them by the same name, penguin, because they were so similar.

That’s all well and good, of course, but what does the word penguin actually mean? Well, Fletcher’s reference to the birds’ “exceeding fatness” points to one possible theory: that penguin might derive from a Latin word, pinguis, meaning “plump”, “dense”, “fatty”—or pinguid. But a more likely explanation lies with Fletcher’s “Welsh men”. Penguin is thought to derive from pen gwyn, the Welsh for “white head”, and sure enough the great auk had a noticeably bright white patch of plumage between its bill and its eyes.

So all that means that the original “penguins” weren’t actually penguins, and weren’t from the Antarctic. But their feet were close to their arses...

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