Now I observe you staring upward and puzzling your wits to guess what great bird it is you see wheeling aloft over our heads. That, Sir, is the type, symbol, and adopted emblem of our nation, the BALD EAGLE, who, by the way, is not bald, any more than that stout and sturdy youth, the thriving republic, whose character he represents; only his head and neck are white; so is his tail; the rest of his body is brown. — New England Magazine, Vol 1, 1831
[emphasis in bold mine]
The Latin name for this iconic raptor is Haliaeetus leucocephalus, which means white-headed sea eagle. The Hali is Greek for “sea” and Aiētēs is “eagle”. Meanwhile, its species name is derived from leucos, “white” and cephalus which means “head”.
In 1782 the bald eagle was designated by Congress to represent the, then fledgling, United States. It is a fine and majestic-looking predatory bird but its head is amply covered with snow-white feathers: to put it bluntly, it is not bald. On the other hand, the immature bald eagle has a mixture of brown and white feathers until its fourth or fifth year of life when the distinctive solid-white head and white tail fully appear.
Etymonline says bald, meaning the lack of hair, is from the 14th century but its origin is uncertain, it suggests that it could have been derived from Celtic bal meaning “white patch, blaze”.
A Middle English Dictionary (Oxford, 1891) suggests that bald comes from the Old English for ball: beal, beall, dating back to c. 1200.
Etymonline also notes the following:
Bald eagle first attested 1680s; so called for its white head.
I also read that the raptor's name was taken from piebald (source), a word that first appeared in 1590 according to Merriam-Webster and means patches of black and white. Oxford Dictionaries states that pie recalls the magpie's black-and-white plumage, and bald (in the obsolete sense ‘streaked with white’).
So now I am quite confused. What do I tell my 12-year-old Italian student on Monday when he comes back for his lesson and point-blank refuses to believe that the bald eagle is bald? Can't say I blame him.
- Why was the white-headed eagle named “bald”?
Is it because
- its white head resembles a smooth spherical ball?
- bald used to mean “streaked with white”?
- bald used to mean “a white patch, blaze”?
- because in flight it looks bald?
- OR because its feathers are dark brown and white, and bald was/is a back-formation or clipping of the 16th-century term piebald.