Bird Words

Post date: Nov 15, 2010 8:31:55 AM

In Norfolk for a few days at half term, we did as much birdwatching as we could squeeze in. Twitching hotspots Titchwell and Cley are two of my favourite places. The "trip list" was slightly disappointing, however, with fewer waders than expected. Highlights included enormous flocks of Golden Plover everywhere one looked, Scoter flocks on the sea (seen through my new telescope), and a Grey Phalarope at Cley (only my second ever, and a "lifer" for the rest of the family). We also discovered that we need to practise our digiscoping.

The above paragraph shows how birding, like any "specialist" hobby, has its own terminology that can act as a barrier to comprehension for the uninitiated. For the record, a "twitcher" is not necessarily an ordinary birdwatcher (or "birder"); a "twitch" is, strictly speaking, a trip to see a specific rare or unusual bird, and "twitchers" are people who make such trips. So a visit en famille to Cley or Titchwell does not count as a twitch, unless we have made the journey specially to see a bird (or birds).

Other mildly technical terms include: "lifer", which means a bird seen for the first time in one's life; "digiscoping", which is using a camera with one's telescope to take digital photos of birds; and the various "lists" of birds an individual or group has seen (including "life list", "trip list", "year list", "county list", "patch list" - the list goes on!). "Patch", by the way, means one's "local patch" - this might be the neighbourhood park, or a reservoir, or a nature reserve, or a beach; it can also be used in various compound constructions, such as "patch list", "patch watching", "patch specialist", etc.

The names of bird species are also a vital component of understanding birdwatching and communicating around it. However, even species names are subject to alteration. According to the latest international bird classification, we are technically supposed to call the humble Robin the "Eurasian Robin", the Lapwing becomes "Northern Lapwing", and the Slavonian Grebe and Grey Phalarope (see above) are in the process of becoming the Horned Grebe and Red Phalarope respectively.

My gut reaction to these changes, and other people's reactions to the use of specialist terms within the birding community (which non-birders either find tiresome, or tend to wilfully misuse), are typical of the negative way we respond when confronted with any kind of innovation or change in language, whether it concerns a new bird name, or the latest invention in "texting" language. Radio 4 (whose listeners and presenters sometimes seem to view linguistic innovation as a personal affront) provides an interesting (if not necessarily representative) barometer, its feedback forums frequently being inundated by scores of complaints about new coinages or non-standard usages. The letters pages of newspapers also positively hum with the indignation of readers concerned about declining standards in spoken or written language.

What we should remember, however, is that language is always changing organically. Otherwise we would still be speaking the language of Shakespeare (who, by the way, was an extraordinary innovator). And with regard to specialist terminology, we should also recall (I hope John Simpson is listening) the old saying that "one person's jargon is another person's specialist terminology" (alright, it's not an old saying, I have just invented it, but that's the whole point of this entry). Specialist terms are a quick and precise way of communicating an idea or concept; they must be used in the appropriate context, so that the non-initiated are not excluded from the conversation. But to condemn "jargon" out of hand is just as bad as using it indiscriminately. I often use the following analogy: I speak French to French people, therefore I speak nuclear to nuclear people, and birding to birding people. It ain't rocket science (not that I speak rocket science).

So next time you hear somebody complaining about "jargon" (and, somewhat bizarrely, many translators and interpreters do this all the time), consider instead that what you are hearing is probably specialist terminology, which serves a specific purpose. It can still be annoying if used in an inappropriate context, but that is about the user, not necessarily about the word. Precision is the key. And next time you are watching birds in Norfolk, don't confuse your Dunlins with your Little Stints, or your Snow Buntings with your Shore Larks - particularly if a potential "lifer" is at stake.

Happy birding - and happy wording!