The falcon is a bird of long association with humankind. It appears on heraldic devices, there are references to it in poetry and various literary works, and falconry has a long history.


But where does the word come from?


The answer is not as straightforward as you might expect. The first stage is to go back to Middle English, where it appears under several spellings, as faucon, faulcon and falcon. Here is an early example from the Middle English poem the Owl and the Nightingale, perhaps from 1275:


Þe faucun was wroþ wit his bridde


(the falcon was angry (rough) with its fledgling)


This form is known to have come from Old French faucon, which was in turn derived from Late Latin falconem. So far, so easy. But this is where the plot thickens and opinions diverge.


The first theory is that it came from Latin falx, which meant “sickle, curved blade”. This would probably have been used for the bird in reference to its curved beak or talons and it seems to be a logical conclusion.


However, before you nod your head in agreement, there is another theory. This suggests that Latin falconem was of Germanic origin, perhaps from Proto-Germanic *falco, meaning “falcon”. This would then be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root *pol-, meaning “pale”. The thought behind this is that it would have meant “lighter bird” or possibly “grey bird”. Proponents of the theory point to the fact that the word was already part of Germanic in antiquity, predating its known debut in Latin. On the other hand, the sport of falconry, which has early references in Mesopotamia, and Chinese texts describing it from 600 BC, would have reached the Germanic peoples via the Romans, thus making it more likely for the word to have developed from Latin.


However, the objection to this point is that while the Germanic peoples may not have been familiar with falconry as a sport, there is no reason to assume that they were also unfamiliar with the bird itself and thus did not have a word for it.


**I was inspired to write this article by Falconry and the Tudors by Katharine Edgar


2 thoughts on “Falcon

  1. I’d always thought that the proposed latin etymology of falcon and its link to the sickle was based on the more obvious feature of the characteristic scythe/sickle shape of the wings. What do you think?
    P.S. This isn’t nit-picking it’s just a shared comment on a very pleasant tool I love using to cultivate my word-garden. Keep up the good work! Malcolm.

    • Hmm. I don’t mind admitting that I wasn’t aware of the sickle shape of a falcon’s wings! However, having just searched for a few pictures, I think it is just as likely as the talons/ beak explanation. It is impossible to say which particular feature of the falcon might have inspired the word; all appear equally likely. The shape might seem more evident in the wings – but the point and sharpness of the beak/ talons might seem equally evident!

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