• Paul Anthony Jones

Ptarmigan

(n.) a grouse native to Arctic and mountainous regions, known for adopting pure white plumage in winter



Why does the word ptarmigan begin with a silent P? It’s all a mistake.



Ptarmigan is a Gaelic word, tàrmachan, that was adopted into English in the 1500s. It maintained its initial T for over a century, until writers in the later Early Modern Period—who became increasingly obsessed with making English behave like the classical languages of antiquity—began, quite frankly, to mess everything up.


Seemingly unfamiliar with the word’s true origins, they wrongly concluded that ptarmigan must be related to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and so began artificially employing a Greek-inspired spelling with an initial silent P. That spelling was etymologically erroneous, but to the writers of the time nevertheless appeared to keep the bird’s name in line with all sorts of other Greek-inspired scientific terms, like pterygoid (a wing-shaped bony structure in the palate), pterygosteum (one of the veins in an insect’s wing) and pteropine (‘resembling a fruit bat’). (Pterosaurs and pterodactyls, incidentally, were a much later discovery, dating from the early Victorian era.)


But while all those words were rightly spelled with a P because they followed the Greek template—quite literally—to the letter, ptarmigan was respelled in error, and we’ve been living with the error ever since.


One last question, though: where did the name tàrmachan come from in the first place?


That’s a trickier point to address, as the word’s Gaelic ancestors remain something of a mystery. There is a convincing theory, however, that the root here is an old Gaelic word, tàrmaich, variously meaning ‘to settle’, ‘originate’ or ‘gather’—and that would make a tàrmachan literally a ‘little settler’.


Quite what that name is meant to allude to is equally puzzling, but it’s perhaps a reference to the birds hunkering close to the earth in the bitter, wintry conditions in which they live, or else is a reference to them making their simple nests in shallow, bowl-shaped scrapes or troughs on the ground.

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