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Pigeon is a borrowing from Anglo-Norman where the etymons are French pigon, pigeon. The earliest citation is found in Middle English, from 1375 per OED:

1375 Thomas Blont..hath indowed Dame Isabell..with..the thridde pejone of the grete dovehouse.
in A. H. Cooke, Early History of Mapledurham (1925) 204

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “pigeon, n., sense I.1.a”, September 2023.
https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1036744913

Etymonline gives the etymology of pigeon as below and mentions that the word pigeon replaced culver:

late 14c., pijoun, "a dove, a young dove" (early 13c. as a surname), from Old French pijon, pigeon "young dove" (13c.), probably from Vulgar Latin *pibionem, dissimilation from Late Latin pipionem (nominative pipio) "squab, young chirping bird" (3c.), from pipire "to peep, chirp," a word of imitative origin. As an English word it replaced culver (Old English culufre, from Vulgar Latin *columbra, from Latin columbula) and native dove (n.).

Culver is an earlier native word for a pigeon, a dove; from Old English culfre, culufre. OED mentions that culver was once common and the latest citation given is from 1869:

a. A dove, a pigeon.
Formerly a common name for the wood pigeon in the south and east of England.

1869 The lark, the thrush, the culver too.
R. Browning, Ring & Book vol. IV. xii. 218

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culver, n.¹, sense a”, July 2023.
https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/4890785183

Culver is a dialectal or a poetic word now and it appears to be used only in the UK.

(now UK, south and east dialect or poetic) A dove or pigeon, now specifically of the species Columba palumbus.

Wiktionary

What happened in history that the word pigeon replaced culver?

Pigeon is an Anglo-Norman borrowing. Could it be that Anglo-Normans had an influence on the field of ornithology within that period and were French words often borrowed into the avian terminology; or could it be that they were interested in the domestication of pigeons and these interactions influenced the language? I'm speculating about the possible sociolinguistic or science-influenced factors but there can be other linguistic or historical factors of course.

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  • There is also "dove" which is Germanic (so may have been in Old English) but is not attested until c. 1200. And Scots had "columbe" from the 15th century.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 3, 2023 at 8:39
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    A lot of English words for meats are based on French (beef/cow, pork/swine, mutton/sheep) and sometimes this carried over to the live animals (poultry). Pigeon may be an example of the latter.
    – Henry
    Oct 3, 2023 at 9:28
  • The OED maintains that it is of unknown origin, casting doubt on Etymonline’s story: “Old English culfre weak feminine (and ? culfer strong feminine), not known in the other Germanic languages. By Grimm thought to be derived < Latin columba; but even if we take culufre as an earlier form (in which we are hardly justified), it is not easy to connect this phonetically with the Latin word. The thoroughly popular standing of the name is also against its adoption < Latin.”
    – tchrist
    Oct 3, 2023 at 13:20
  • @Henry I've found in Anglo-Norman dictionary that pigeon (French pigon) served as a dish is from 1396: anglo-norman.net/entry/pejon
    – ermanen
    Oct 3, 2023 at 15:00
  • @TimR Good find. It can be a possible answer with details. I believe the English nobility used Anglo-Norman as their main language after the Norman invasion of 1066.
    – ermanen
    Oct 3, 2023 at 15:05

1 Answer 1

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Quotes from a text presenting History of Netheravon Dovecote:

Till 1761, the construction of a dovecote was one of the privileges associated with lordship, they are often found near castles and manor houses and considered a symbol of power of the owner of surrounding land.

Although the Romans are known to have reared pigeons, there is no evidence that they introduced them to Britain.

It is more likely that they were another introduction of the Norman nobility and, indeed, pigeons and dovecotes are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Other documentary and archaeological evidence suggests that they were used extensively by the Normans (pigeons dropping were used as a fertilizer).

The word "pigeon" may have been imported by Anglo-Normans as a consequence of this practice.

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  • Thank you. Good find! I've suspected an explanation like this also but I couldn't find a good reference.
    – ermanen
    Oct 3, 2023 at 15:05

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