Why do we call them “falcons”?

The falcon probably takes its name from the “sickle” shape of its beak, talons, or wings.

This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. I’ve previously taken on the etymology of patriot, which ultimately derives from the Greek word for “father” and, curiously, didn’t always carry a positive connotation in English. But what the origin of the word falcon?

Ready for flight…or to reap some grain? Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

A bird, or sickle, in the hand…

Falcon stooped on English in the mid 1200s. The Oxford English Dictionary firsts falcon, as faukun, in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated to around 1250. In this poem, the titular birds sharply debate which of them is the superior avian. (The nightingale accuses the owl of laying an egg in a falcon’s nest, the medieval version of Deflategate, I suppose.) 

The English falcon swoops in from the Old French faucon, which flies from the Late Latin falcōnem, all referring to the bird of prey. The nominative, or subject case, form of falcōnem was falcō, presumably derived from falx, “a sickle.” The falcon’s beak, talons, or possibly the sharp curve of its outspread wings resemble this farming blade, apparently.

Falx also gives English falcate, “curved like a sickle,” falchion, a machete-like sword, and, speaking big names of the US South, the surname Faulkner (“falconer”).

The sickle is used for harvesting or reaping grain crops. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Pinning down falx

The origin of Latin’s falx is unclear. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology says it was “probably a loanword from some ancient, non-Indo-European language of the Mediterranean area.” In his dictionary, however, Ernest Klein argues falx was a back-formation of falcula, mistaken as a diminutive of falx.

This falx, Klein continues, alights on the Ligurian *dalkla, which apparently shows up in a former Greek name for Messina, Sicily, Zagxle, or “the hook-shaped town.” If this is so, the Ligurian *dalkla could nest in an Indo-European root for some type of “cutting tool,” related to the English dalk, an obscure word for a “pin” or “brooch.”

Ligurian, it’s worth noting, was once spoken along the northwest Italian/southeast French coast. In 350 BC, some Greeks won a major victory, or nike in Greek, over its speakers, the Ligures, there. They renamed the town Nikia, which we now know as Nice, French. 

An etymology of a different feather

There’s another theory, though, about falcon. It claims Latin borrowed falcō from a Germanic word (consider the modern German Falke). Supporters, here, cite Falco as a very early Teutonic name, and suppose the term originally meant “gray bird.” The deeper root, in this case, would be the Proto-Indo-European *pel-, “pale,” source, among other words, of fallow, a pale brown or reddish yellow color that indeed describes a falcon’s feathers. Fallow, as in fields, is unrelated.

Barnhart fiercely disagrees with this Germanic-to-Latin theory:

The conjecture that Late Latin falcōnem was a borrowing from a Germanic word…is difficult to sustain culturally, especially since falconry, by all historical records, seems to have originated in the East and reached Germanic tribes through Latin or Romance-speaking peoples.

Well, he’s fierce for an etymologist, at least.

A winning name

Atlanta Falcons logo. © Atlanta Falcons Football Club, courtesy of Google Images.

As for the Atlanta Falcons? The franchise joined the National Food League in 1965. That August, the team held a naming contest. Several people submitted “Falcon,” but an area teacher, Julia Elliot, won the prize because of her reasoning: “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It is deadly, and has a great sporting tradition.”

Their current logo, too, creates a very sharp, even blade-like letter F. But if the Germanic theory of falcon is right, the red and black Atlanta Falcons got their colors all wrong. Well, they do have a silver accent.

But a great sporting tradition, indeed: It may only be the Falcons’ second Super Bowl appearance, compared to the Patriots’ nine, but who else can boast a name that calls up a sport reaching all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia?

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