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Pretty much what it says on the tin— usually if something is "X of Y", it is, usually because "X" is related to, or is of "Y" (e.g. "people of faith" means people who have faith) In this case however, "bird of prey" doesn't mean that the bird is prey, but rather, that it eats prey, which is the opposite (it's the equivalent of construing "people of faith" to mean "atheist"). What is the reason we call birds that eat prey "of prey", instead of "predator birds"?

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    By the example you give, wouldn't "birds of prey" actually mean "birds who have prey"? That seems pretty self-explanatory. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 18:39
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    Sense 3.a of prey: “The act or practice of preying”. They are birds of preying. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 19:43
  • Because they prey on other birds or animals.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 20:06
  • I can never remember if it is the Welsh or the Scots who pray on Sundays, and their neighbours.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 21:31
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    'of', like other prepositions, has many meanings. The bird of mine is a bird that I own. The bird of clay is a bird that is constructed from clay. The bird of Alcatraz comes from Alcatraz...etc. It just means a bird that has something to do with prey, and, in this case, kills it.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 22:24

2 Answers 2

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From a grammatical point of view, "prey" preceeded by "of" is a genitive.

In many languages such as Latin, English or French, the genitive generally indicates the possession. But in this case, the genitive denotes a description, as for "a man of honour" or "the day of reckoning".

Bird of prey is a translation of the medieval latin "avis praedae". It may be a direct translation from latin or derived from its french equivalent "oiseau de proie".

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  • In this case, the genitive denotes a description – Isn't "man of honour" possessive (i.e. the man has honour)? Also, wouldn't denotes a description seem to suggest that a bird of prey can be described as prey (and by implication, that an eagle is, among other things, a prey)? That seems to contradict the intent of the term "bird of prey". Commented Feb 10, 2018 at 15:24
  • @GhotiandChips Following that train of thought produces “birds that have prey”, which kind of fits.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 15:56
  • Constructions using "... de ..." (where de=of) are even more common in French than in English, as French tends not to use attributive nouns in the way English does, but uses a preposition instead. I wouldn't be surprised if there are several "... of ..." phrases that are direct translations of the French.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 17:24
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Bird of prey is a sentence fragment, it has a direct readable meaning.

"birds of prey" : "of" is a preposition, so that means the subject is doing the object of the preposition, so "the bird is preying" is the meaning of birds of prey.

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