Fact or fallacy?

It's one of those things you hear or casually read somewhere that sticks with you. The word penguin is derived from Welsh; pen refers to "head", while gywn means "white". Well, it's not as clear cut as that, as I discovered when my English boyfriend objected and said penguins didn't have white heads. He's right, they don't.

Online Etymology Dictionary says

1570s, originally used of the great auk of Newfoundland (now extinct), shift in meaning to the Antarctic bird (which looks something like it, found by Drake in Magellan's Straits in 1578) is from 1580s. Of unknown origin, though often asserted to be from Welsh pen "head" (see pen-) + gwyn "white", but Barnhart says the proposed formation is not proper Welsh. The great auk had a large white patch between its bill and eye.

According to An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1922) By Ernest Weekley

The fact that the penguin has a black head is no serious objection, as bird names are of very uncertain application (cf. albatross, grouse, pelican, bustard). F. pingouin, earlier (1600) penguyn, if not from E., may be Breton pen gouin, white head.

The earlier Etymological Dictionary, dated 1888 and written by Walter W. Skeat asserts

  1. Another story (in Littré) is that some Dutchmen, in 1598, gave the name to some birds seen by them in the straits of Magellan, intending an allusion to Lat. pinguis, fat. But this will not account for the suffix -in, and is therefore wrong; . . .

Latin trail

pinguis adjective

From Proto-Indo-European poid- (“to abound in water, milk, or fat”), from Proto-Indo-European poi- (“sap, juice”)

pinguis m, f (neuter pingue); third declension
1. fat, plump
2. thick, dense
3. (of taste) dull, insipid, not pungent
4. (of wine) oily, rich, full-bodied
5. (of land) fertile, rich

Other Languages

In Welsh it is called pengwin
In English, and Hmong it's penguin
In Albanian and German it is pinguin
In Basque, and Italian it is pinguino
In Bosnian, Croatian, Danish, Hungarian, Norwegian,
Slovenian and Swedish it is pingvin
In Catalan it is pingüí
In Spanish it is pingüino
In Dutch it is pinguïn
In Estonian it's pingviin
In Finnish it's pingviini
In French it's pingouin
In Irish it's piongain
In Polish and Maltese it's pingwin
In Portuguese it's pinguim
In Turkish it's penguen

  • Did all these languages borrow the term from English (Welsh)?
  • Was Walter W. Skeat correct in dismissing the Latin term pinguis?
  • Couldn't the term be a composite of pinna + wing (pinna is also Italian for fin and penguins are exceptional swimmers!)
  • 11
    Do you have access to the full OED? Their "etymology" section for penguin is far longer than anything else I can recall seeing there. They start off by saying Etymology: Probably Welsh pen gwyn = white head, and (eventually! :) finish with An alternative explanation of the word as an alteration of ‘pin-wing’, referring to the rudimentary wings, is unsupported. Apr 7, 2015 at 18:24
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers nope, no access to the OED unfortunately. But nice to see that my idea of pinna+wing is not so far fetched :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2015 at 18:27
  • 4
    It may be relevant to note that OED seem convnced penguin was originally used to reference the now-extinct Newfoundland great auk, which (like fledgling penguins) has/had very distinctive white markings around its eyes. So I don't think there's any reason to worry about the fact that adult penguins have black heads. ... Goddammit! - after laboriously posting this comment I see etymonline has pretty much reproduced exactly what OED say there! Apr 7, 2015 at 18:31
  • 2
    Fascinating question. The discussion in Skeat is especially interesting and seems to raise the possibility that Francis Drake's white-capped (or was it?) Penguin Island, named in the late 1500s, may have given its name to the multitude of plump flightless birds living there, rather than vice versa. An island inhabited by tens of thousands of large bids is likely to be white on the surface, anyway. I'll check some earlier etymological dictionaries, but I suspect that they won't offer any breakthrough insights.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 7, 2015 at 19:01
  • 2
    Tiny comment: the "correct" Irish version isn't "penguin", but rather "piongain". Like many Irish words, this is probably a recent construct designed to be as close as possible to a homonym of the English (or Welsh) word; however, the morphology of Irish doesn't allow the English spelling. Apr 9, 2015 at 8:29

6 Answers 6


There are three suggested origins of penguin: Welsh pen gywn 'white head'; a derivative of Latin pinguis 'fat'; and English pin wing.

There is no evidence for the last one but there are explanations for Welsh and Latin origins. It seems like the Welsh origin is the most favored one. There is a very detailed explanation in the book The Celtic Languages in Contact edited by Hildegard L. C. Tristram with references to OED (starting from page 254).

The suggested Latin origin pinguis is well-founded but circumstantial. It is mentioned that in English, the word goes back to the 1570s, and a form pinguin is attested by 1635. Also, in several languages the word has an -i- in the first syllable today; but the earliest attested forms in English and other languages have an -e- in their first syllable.

The Welsh theory is well-supported by the fact that pen gywn closely matches the earliest forms of the word and the earliest example listed in OED states that the name to be given by Welsh sailors:

1577    F. Fletcher Log of ‘Golden Hind’ 24 Aug. in N. M. Penzer World Encompassed by Sir F. Drake (1971) 128    Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.

It is mentioned in The Celtic Languages in Contact that rocks and headlands housing large colonies of birds are often so thickly covered in bird droppings that they appear white.

enter image description here
[Penguin (and probably auk) guano is white in color (if their diet consists of fish mainly) and they squirt their guano away from their nest and themselves in a stream that goes up to 2 ft]

Thus, it is possible that such a rock in a newly discovered region could be called 'white headland', or by Welsh sailors, pen gwyn. Here is a relevant excerpt from the same book for the possible ultimate Welsh origin:

It seems significant that the earliest evidence also consistently refers to a place called Penguin Island, which is described as the home of a sizable colony of the birds:

New found land is in a temperate Climate ... There are ... many other kind 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 (Parkhurst 1578: 676).

This name is also connected with the Welsh language at an early date. The following passage comes from an account of a mythical medieval voyage, but it refers to the world as it was known to the 16th-century authors:

But the Iland of Corroeso, the cape of Bryton, the riuer of Gwyndor, and the white rocke of Pengwyn, which be all Brytish or Welsh words, doo manifestlie shew that it was that countrie which Madoc and his people inhabited (Lhoyd and Powel 1584: 229).

The frequent references to Penguin Island, some of which antedate use of the word as a noun denoting the bird suggest that the bird may have been named after the location, rather than vice versa. Pen is a common place-name element in Wales, as well as in areas with related languages, such as Cornwall and Brittany. It is the same word for a head, but used in an extended sense 'headland'.

The Welsh origin is also a possible reference to the large white patches behind the great auk's eyes. In the end, whatever the origin is, it is certain that "penguin" was once applied to the great auk by sailors and others. Then, sailors started to venture southern seas and they saw birds that resemble the ones they are familiar with in the northern waters; so they called them penguins too. Eventually, great auk became extinct and the name "penguin" started becoming the exclusive name of southern birds.

A 19th century illustration of a great auk, captioned with the name "penguin". At the time this picture was made, there was some overlap in the use of the name.

enter image description here

The Great Auk: The Extinction of the Original Penguin By Errol Fuller

Language notes:

Some languages like Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish (and probably some other European languages) borrowed the word from French and the French etymology mentions the Welsh origin as well.

Interestingly, the French word pingouin maintains the original sense and means auk in English. In French, manchot is used for the bird called penguin in English.

From the 18th century, German language used the word Fettgans 'fatty goose' for penguin which might be related to the Latin origin pinguis 'fat'.

  • So the great auk was also named penguin (or pengwyn) after its natural habitat, due to the island/headland having white rocks. Might be an idea to see an image of this place! :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 8, 2015 at 7:27
  • @Mari-LouA: There is an example here :)
    – ermanen
    Apr 8, 2015 at 15:17
  • Also, some languages like Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish (and probably some other European languages) borrowed the word from French and the French etymology mentions the Welsh origin also.
    – ermanen
    Apr 8, 2015 at 15:22
  • The book that I mentioned says that from 18th century, German used the word Fettgans 'fatty goose' for penguin.
    – ermanen
    Apr 8, 2015 at 15:24
  • It seems to me that Latin "pinna" for feather might also be a root. One can imagine a construction meaning "feathered fish" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 8, 2015 at 22:48

Auk (aka penguin?)

The great auk was a large white-bellied bird with small wings which eventually became extinct between 1844 and 1852. It was found along the coasts of Canada, the northeastern United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, France, and northern Spain. Experts believe that the great auk never had more than 20 breeding colonies because these flightless birds required rocky islands with sloping shorelines that provided easy access to the seashore.

Thus the great auk (also called the penguin of the north since 16th century) was not a widespread species but it was well-known to Europeans. A large, fat, black seabird with a visible white belly it had small wings, which were useless for flying but ideal for swimming and diving under water.

The following Wikipedia entry describes the bird's remarkable swimming ability

The great auk was generally an excellent swimmer, using its wings to propel itself underwater. [. . .] This species was capable of banking, veering, and turning underwater. The great auk was known to dive to depths of 76 metres (249 ft) and it has been claimed that the species was able to dive to depths of 1 kilometre (3,300 ft).

In 1785 a volume dedicated to North Atlantic birds was published called Arctic Zoology, written by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) a Welsh naturalist, traveller, and esteemed zoologist. Throughout his life he maintained a regular correspondence with Carl Linnaeus "the father of modern taxonomy", and several other renowned naturalists. Never once is the term penguin mentioned in the Welsh writer's book. Instead Pennant referred to the Pigmy, and Tufted Auk; Crested and Dusky auk; Great Auk; Black-Billed Auk; Puffin Auk; Labrador, Little, and ‘Antient Auks’.

Great Auk

Black-billed Auk

Dusky Auk

  • Why is there no mention of the auk species also being called penguins?
  • Why no mention of white cliffs, or rocks in the birds' habitats?
  • Why on Earth would a Welshman not use the term penguin?

Penguin might be an Italian loanword

In Italian, the adjective pingue is used to describe a person, a part of the human body or an animal that is covered with an abundant layer of adipose tissue, that is to say someone or something extremely fat.

un ventre pingue (a fat belly)
sta diventando pingue come un maiale (you're getting fat as a pig)

However, the Italian term pingue can be used to describe any animal that is raised either to be eaten or sacrificed, in these cases pingue has positive connotations. The animal is plump, glowing with health, and ready to be eaten or sacrificed.

un pingue vitello (calf); i p. agnelli (lambs); il p. gregge (sheep/goat herd); un cibo p. (food); un p. pasto (a hearty or fattening meal)

enter image description here

It is said that when Europeans discovered penguins in the southern hemisphere they were struck by their resemblance to auks, but instead of calling the new species "small-winged" or "clumsy-walking", they named the flightless seabird penguin, the same term which many people used for auks.

Meanwhile, the term pinion has existed in the English language since the 15th century

pinion n.:
1. (mostly poetic) The wing of a bird.
2.(Zoology) the part of a bird's wing including the flight feathers

[Middle English, from Old French pignon "wing-feather, wing, pinion" (c.1400), from Vulgar Latin *pinniō, pinniōn-, from Latin penna, augmentative of Latin pinna "wing", feather; see pinna.]

English Poets

Shakespeare used the word in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Therefore do nimble-pinion'd doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.

John Milton spelled the term pennons in Paradise Lost

A vast vacuity: All unawares
Flutt'ring his
pennons vain plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fathom deep, and to this hour
Down had been falling, had not by ill chance,
[. . .]

In the Encyclopaedia perthensis, or, Universal dictionary of the Arts, Sciences and Literature (1816), we see penguin was also written pinguin, which suggests it was a common spelling variant.

The wings of the pinguin are scarcely any thing else than mere fins, while the awk has real wings and gills, though they be but small.

Couldn't the terms pinguin and penguin be derived from pinion, pinna or pennon; words which were firmly established in the English vernacular by the 16th century?

The Portuguese, Spanish and Canadian connection

Lastly, the Canadian author, and naturalist, Farley Mowat, ignores any ties to the Welsh theory. In his 1984 book Sea of Slaughter he writes about the great auk [emphasis mine].

The ancient Norse called it geiifugelspearbill, [. . . ] Spanish and Portuguese voyagers called it pinguin—the fat one—a reference to the thick layer of blubber that encased it. By the beginning of the sixteenth century most deep-water men of whatever nation had adopted some version of this later name, as pennegouin in French, and pingwen in English. Indeed, it was the first, and true, penguin. But before the nineteenth century ended, all of its original names had been stripped from it and passed out of time carrying a tag attached to dusty museum specimens by modern science . . . great auk. I shall refer to it by the names bestowed on it by those who knew it in life.

  • 1
    That's what concerns me about the 'Welsh' route. Great Auk (and lesser members) were well know to Europeans long before the 16th century - they fed all over the coast of northern Europe and they bred in Scotland and Iceland and were used as seasonal food, it wasn't a new species that needed a name. The southern penguins (Sphensciformes) were a new species; Magellan and his crew(s) must have seen them back in 1520 as he rounded the Straits and probably again (now with Magellan dead) when they passed The Cape in 1522. I suspect penguin was coined for the real penguins. Still looking.
    – Frank
    Apr 8, 2015 at 8:35
  • Penguin was used for great auk by sailors mainly because of the resemblance of the animals. I think zoologists wouldn't mix up the terms like this; they are the experts in the end. (However, people other than sailors used it also; I'm not sure if any other zoologist used it.)
    – ermanen
    Apr 8, 2015 at 14:33
  • 1
    @Frank Have you found anything? Make your mark, now or never. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 9, 2015 at 8:58
  • I've found a number of things - none definitive - but I don't have the time at the moment to turn it into an answer - but I will try and collect my info into an answer (of sorts) at the weekend. This is one of the best etymology questions I've seen and all the answers so far are excellent.
    – Frank
    Apr 9, 2015 at 9:15
  • @Frank I look forward to seeing it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 9, 2015 at 9:17

I looked around a bit for a Dutch connection, and found some things. On http://www.surfspin.nl/zee-ezel1012.html I found this interesting text from 1595 describing penguins in a completely different location than New Zealand and thereabouts, showing that by that time Dutch seamen seemed familiar with the name as applied to what they also called “fat goose” (vetgans).

In dese Bay leyt een cleijn Eylandt, daer is menichte van ghevogelt, Pincuius genaemt, [..] die canmen metter handt vanghen.
Wy vonden oock inde baeye een cleyn eylandeken alwaer by duijsenden zee woluen op waeren ende groote water vogelen die genaemt werden Pinguijns weesende zeer vreemdt van maecksel want en conden niet vlieghen ende hadden corte vluegelen sonder pennen ende veeren (…).
In this bay is a small island, where there is a multitude of birds, named Pincuius, one can catch these by hand.
We also found in that bay a small island where there were sea-lions by the thousands as well as big aquatic birds that are called Pinguijns, being very strangely created for they could not fly and had short wings without feathers.

The island is the (now infamous) Robben Island, and the birds are Blackfoot Penguins. The site mentions as an explanation for the name of the bird the Welsh Great Auk connection, but without much conviction. It does mention Pinguinus impennis as the Latin name for the Auk.

The Dutch etymology site etymologiebank has some other sources:

M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands:

Dese voghels ... worden Pinguins ghenoemt van weghen hare vettigheydt [1600]
These birds ... are called Pinguins because of their "fatness".

So in 1600, this author assumes a connection to "fatness" (the Dutch name for the birds was "fat goose"), which seems to imply that he assumed the name came from Latin (pinguis). However, the same entry ignores this author and continues explaining the word came from English, through the Great Auk connection.

J. de Vries (1971), Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek:

pinguin znw. m. internationaal woord voor deze vogelsoort. Daar zij vroeger vetganzen genoemd werden, is een geleerde afl. van lat. pinguis ‘vetʼ aannemelijk.
pinguin noun (m) International word for this bird. Since they used to be called fat goose, a learned derivation from Latin pinguis (fat) is plausible.

The fat connection is denied, however, in this blog by Anatoly Liberman:

In 1598 the derivation of penguin from Latin pinguis “fat” was proposed, but this is folk etymology, and no one today seems to take it seriously (yet I saw references to it as late as 1938), though it led to the coining of Flemish vetgans and German Fettgans “penguin,” literally “fat goose.” (Magellan also called those birds geese.)

So it seems the Dutch references had it backwards, the word vetgans was based on the supposed Latin connection, not the other way around. Oh, and I have a 1971 reference to best Lieberman's 1938...

In conclusion, Lieberman discards the Latin connection altogether, and he references Lockwood to undermine the Welsh connection (the natural Welsh word would have been penwynn). Lockwood writes:

Although the inhabitants of islands off the north of Scotland were familiar with the flightless auk, seamen venturing to the New World can have had no clear notion of such a bird. Consequently, when they came upon it in Newfoundland they used a new name penguin. A few decades later, these same men were sailing through the Straight of Magellan where they discovered other flightless birds and promptly named them penguins, too. This we find the only consistent interpretation of the literary evidence as set out in the OED and which also corresponds to the general historical picture.

It seems that the modern penguin was most likely named for its resemblance to the Great Auk, but the question remains why the Great Auk was named penguin.


I have a few notes on what may have been the 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century understanding of penguin. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756) has the following entry:

PENGUIN. s. {anser magellanicus, Latin} 1. A bird, though he be no higher than a large goose, yet he weighs sometimes sixteen pounds. Grew. 2. A fruit very common in the West Indies, of a sharp acid flavour. Miller.

Though Johnson's Dictionary has no entry for auk, it does one for the word pinguid:

PINGUID. a. {pinguis, Latin} Fat ; unctuous. Mortimer.

Anser magellanicus ("Magellan goose") is a species name by which the great auk was sometimes known at that time, as this excerpt from John Hill, An History of Animals (1752) indicates:

The Penguin

This is a very large and singular bird ; it is equal to the common goose in size, but in all respects resembles the species of Alca already described, except in the specific distinctions : the head is large, and flatted on the crown ; the beak is of a kind of triangular figure, compressed at the sides, and a little hooked just at the extremity ; it is between three and four inches in height, and has eight of the furrows which distinguish the birds of this genus on it, ...

The head is black, only that there runs a white line on each side, from the beak to the eyes: the beak and wings, and indeed the whole upper part of the body are black, and the breast and belly, or whole under part are white : the wings are very short, and the tail also is short : the feet stand very backward : the legs are short and black, and the toes connected by a membrane.

This is a native of most of the northern parts of Europe, and has been described by all the writers on birds. Willughby calls it Penguin nautis nostratibus dicta quae Grofugel Hoieri esse videtur ; Bartholine calls it Avis Garfahl ; Clusius, Anser Magellanicus ; Wormius, Anser Magellanicus Penguin ; and Ray, simply, Penguin. It feeds on sea-fish, and on many of the insects and small animals that frequent the shores.

This might seem to establish that in the mid-1700s the name penguin referred only to the great auk. But later ornithologists point out that there was considerable confusion in earlier times about not only the common name penguin but also the species name Anser magellanicus. As W. H. Mullens, "Notes on the Great Auk," in British Birds, volume 15 (1922) observes,

The first so-called "scientific" reference to the Great Auk as distinguished from those contained in early voyages and travels is that made by Clusius [in 1605]. On page 101 of his above-mentioned work, under the heading "Anser Magellanicus," Clusius gives the figure (here reproduced) and description of the South American Penguin. ...

So much for the South American Penguin; it has been necessary to give the passage at length since we shall see other authors following Clusius have described the Great Auk under this title, i.e., Anser Magellanicus.

Clearly, the identification process didn't get off to a good start. Symington Grieve, The Great Auk or Garefowl (1885), devotes a full chapter to "Some Names by Which the Great Auk Has Been Known." The Internet Archive has posted a plain-text version (with some OCR mistakes) of the complete text of Grieve's book. Here is part of Grieve's section on the name penguin:

Penguin.—A name by which it [the great auk] was known in almost all the countries it inhabited during the last century was "The Penguin," or "le Grand Pingoin;" and there can be little doubt that this name, which appears to be of Welsh origin, and which is now given to a class of birds inhabiting the Southern Hemisphere, was originally given to the Great Auk, ... This confusion of the names led to no end of trouble among ornithologists, very few of whom fifty or sixty years ago really knew what were the points of difference between the species, and some were to be found ready to deny that such a bird as the Great Auk ever existed, ...

Grieve then quotes from volume 3 of Hakluyt's Voyages, George Peckham, "A true Report of the late discoueries and possession taken in the right of the Crowne of England of the Newfound Lands [in 1583], By that valiant and worthy Gentleman, Sir Humfrey Gilbert, Knight," chapter 3:

And it is very evident that the planting there shall in time right amply enlarge her Maiesties Territories and Dominions or (I might rather say), restore her to her Highnesse ancient right and interest in those Countries, into the which a noble and worthy personage, lineally descended from the blood royall borne in Wales, named Madock ap Owen Gwyneth, departing from the coast of England, about the yeere of our Lord God 1170, arrived and there planted himself and his colonies and afterward returned himself into England, leaving certaine of his people there, as appeareth in an ancient Welsh Chronicle, where he then gave to certaine islands, beastes and foules, sundry Welsh names, as the Island of Pengwin, which yet to this day beareth the same. There is likewise a foule in the saide countreys called by the same name at this day, and is as much to say in English, as white heads, and in truth the saide foules have white heads. There is also in those countries a fruit called Gwynethes, which is likewise a Welsh word.

Grieve next considers a mention of of "Penguin" in another account that appears in Hakluyt's VoyagesThe Voyage of M. [Robert] Hore in 1536. That account includes this mention of "penguins":

From the time of their setting out from Gravesend [in April 1536], they were very long at sea, to witte, above two moneths, and never touched any land untill they came to part of the West Indies about Cape Briton [in what is now Newfoundland], shaping their course thence Northeastwardes, untill they came to the Island of Penguin, which is very full of rockes and stones, whereon they went and found it full of great foules white and gray, as big as geese, and they saw infinite numbers of their egges.

Robert Gray, "On Two Unrecorded Eggs of the Great Auk (Alca impennis) discovered in an Edinburgh Collection ; with remarks on the former existence of the bird in Newfoundland" (1887) notes the following comments by John Forster, in History of the Voyages and Discoveries Made in the North (1786) regarding Hore's voyage:

"A person of the name of Hore, says Forster, set sail in 1536 from London with two ships—the 'Trinity' and the 'Minion'—about the latter end of April. They arrived at Cape Briton, and from thence went to the north-eastward till they came to Penguin Island, an island situated on the southern coast of Newfoundland, and which was named after a kind of sea-fowl which the Spaniards and Portuguese called Penguins on account of their being so very fat, and which used to build their nests and to live in astonishing quantities on this little rock."

Grieve very briefly dismisses Forster's etymological analysis, which (Grieve says) is echoed by "Caroli's Chisius":

This derivation is one of the old-fashioned kind, and its absurdity does not need to be pointed out.

Finally, turning his attention to the species name Anser magellanicus, Grieve has this:

Anser Magellanicus, seu Pinguini.—Anser Magellanicus, seu Pinguini was the name used by Olaus Wormius in 1655 for the Great Auk; but he must have had a confused idea about the bird, for though he figures the Great Auk from one got from the Faröe Islands, and which he kept alive for several months ... yet he describes it as the Anser Magellanicus, seu Pinguini of Clusius, while that author describes the true Great Auk as the Mergus Americanus, and the penguin of the Southern Ocean as the Anser Magellanicus.

For almost 350 years, European ornithologists exhibited considerable confusion about precisely what bird or birds the word penguin referred to; but it looks as though etymologists may beat that record of confusion when it comes to identifying the origin and meaning of the word.

  • Excellent post. Absolutely fascinating. Equally fascinating how many British etymologists were/are strongly opposed to the hypothesis that penguin is derived from the the Latin term pinguid Almost making it a question of national pride. Your citation re. the aristocrat Welshman Madock ap Owen Gwyneth is the most convincing argument to date.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 10, 2015 at 5:41
  • BTW I've seen auk spelled as awk too, perhaps Johnson has an entry under that name
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 10, 2015 at 5:44
  • Ermanen's post also includes a fleeting reference to Madoc, something that was easily missed. The Wiki article is, again, quite fascinating. Who knew, Welsh Indians.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:10
  • 1
    @Mari-Lou A: Johnson does have an entry for awk, but the word is simply a short form for "awkward," citing an example from Roger L'Estrange. I would be very hesitant to take linguistic analyses based on land claims attributed to 12th-century Welsh Newfoundlanders of the Northern West Indies but asserted on behalf of much later English claimants to the land at face value. Not that it isn't interesting in a multitude of ways...
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:29

These birds did not breed around Wales, but there is evidence that they travelled South in the non breeding season. The plumage of auks changes when out of breeding and that of the Great Auk did as well. I have only seen one painting of such a bird and most of the black plumage had disappeared to be replaced by much more white. Now this is probably from a single individual. was this in complete non breeding plumage or in transition. Did they completely loose the black in their heads? The birds around the Welsh coastline would have been the non breeders with much more white in their heads than the white spotted auks so frequently shown. ps The reason they are all in breeding plumage is because those were the ones that could be caught and stuffed!


Now the Latin derivation. It was fishermen and sailors that came in contact with this bird. They would not have been speaking latin ( although some may have been educated in it) so why would they have used a Latin word. The Celts were sailors, were they Welsh or were they Breton it was the same language. A Welshman still understands Breton today, may by not perfectly but we can speak and be understood by the Bretons.

  • 1
    Hello, welcome to EL&U! Owen is a welsh last name, isn't it? I see you're defending their honour, bravo! Interesting ideas you've put forward but can you please group them in the same answer, please? There is no need to post two separate "answers". Thanks.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 10, 2017 at 4:53

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