I'm currently on page 123 of All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and came across this passage.

The mouths of the cans were lensed with tinted cellophane and they cast upon the sheeting a shadowplay in the lights and smoke of antic demon players and a pair of goathawks arced chittering through the partial darkness overhead.

What does this word goathawks mean in this passage? I'm guessing its an amalgam of different words, but what could goat + hawk possibly mean in this context? Is this some western slang that I'm unaware of?

  • 3
    Here is a 'list of "words" unique to 'All the Pretty Horses" '. A quick search doesn't turn up much further usage, so this is probably off-topic as non-standard, a fictional nonce-word. Nov 9, 2020 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


'Goat hawk' (or 'goathawk', 'goat-hawk') is a local or regional common (that is, not scientific) name for Caprimulgidae (from a Latin root meaning "goat milker"; see entry at Wordsense.eu) species. In the US, they are also known as whip-poor-wills.


Nightjar, Goatsucker, Dorhawk, Fernowl, Nighthawk, Churnowl, Goathawk, Wheelhawk, Wheelbird, Wheelowl, Spinningbird, Goat-milker, or Evejar.

Observations of the natural history of swallows, Thomas Forster, 1817.

The genus name (caprimulgus) derives from a mistaken folk belief that the birds suckled goats, causing the goats to cease producing milk.

A mysterious bird of night, bearing the sombre colours of the reed and the night upon his body, and bearing in his record the legend of goat-sucker, the etymology of which I think is at fault, unless, indeed, the goat-hawk moth was meant, and the bird originally called "goat-hawk sucker," and subsequently "goat-sucker;" but the Broadsmen know nothing of this widely-spread superstition.

Birds, beasts and fishes of the Norfolk broadland, P.H. Emerson, 1895.

  • Observations of the natural history of swallows, Thomas Forster, 1817 (A charming reference.) Times have moved on and nightjars are recognised as being in a category of their own and not swallows.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 10, 2020 at 0:54
  • @Greybeard, Princely birds formerly known as swallows? Forster was only 203 years behind on scientific nomenclature. As for times having "moved on", disagreement about Caprimulgidae continues. I do take your point, though, and changed the verbiage accordingly.
    – JEL
    Nov 10, 2020 at 4:56
  • 1
    - Ah!, you shouldn't have changed it. It is not really germane to the English and it is a fascinating insight into old science.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 10, 2020 at 11:09
  • @Greybeard, was your first comment on this answer asking for more information or suggesting improvements?
    – JEL
    Nov 11, 2020 at 7:20
  • Neither - it was a pure comment on the information in the original as a reflection of the state of knowledge at that time.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 11, 2020 at 10:39

I suspect that "goathawk" is a local name for the nightjar (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightjar). The bird is known in the USA as a nighthawk, and in the UK as the goatsucker. I note "a pair of goathawks arced chittering through the partial darkness overhead"

Nightjars do travel and hunt in pairs and are mainly crepuscular/nocturnal - they are also considered 'mysterious'.

From the magazine "Hoipolloi" (Gainesville College) at page 22: digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/cgi/… (.pdf file)

When John Grady first touches Alejandra ... "a pair of goathawks" ... then swoop down... and arch upward into the darkness again". These birds of the night signify John Grady's feelings at the time. Like the birds in semi-darkness, John Grady partially hides his emotions by not going over to Alejandra until she smiles at him. At first touch John Grady's emotions flare like the birds.

In support of this nightjars are not very big - the idea of something the size of an eagle in a dance hall would be remarkable.

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