Etymology, with an “eagle” eye

Maybe in some parallel universe it wasn’t the Philadelphia Eagles who won Super Bowl LII. No, not the New England Patriots but the Philadelphia Ernes. For erne was the usual word for “eagle” in Old English, and in my hypothetical Twilight Zone, French and Latin didn’t sack Anglo-Saxon like so many blitzing linebackers.

Etymologically, the Philadelphia Eagles main team color isn’t midnight green. It’s “dark brown” or “black.” (Pixabay)

Volate, Aquilae, Volate, or “Fly, Eagles, Fly”

The term eagle kicked erne of the lexical eyrie in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first dates it to around 1350 in a Middle English version of the Apocalypse of St. John (Book of Revelation): “þe fierþe was liche an Egle,” or “the fourth was like an eagle.” This is describing the final of the four living creatures revealed to the titular John. In his vision, which closely echoes the prophet Ezekiel’s in the Old Testament, living creatures like a lion, ox, man, and eagle are bearing the throne of God.   

This eagle swoops in from the French (Anglo-Norman eagle, Middle and Old French aigle, among other forms). As with so much of French, aigle goes back to a Latin roost: aquila, a kind of eagle. Etymologists have traditionally suspected aquila comes from the adjective aquila, “brown, blackish, of the color of darkness,” making that Roman eagle the “dark brown bird.” The color term may have also hatched the bird word. It’s an eaglet-and-egg problem, as it were.

The adjective for like an eagle in English—the very construction that gives us one of the earliest instances of eagle in the language—is aquiline, from that same Latin aquila. A golf eagle, “scoring a hole two under par,” is modeled on a birdie; both are attested in the 1900s and inspired the double eagle or albatross, or three under par, by the 1930s.

Erne, or earn in Old English, is distantly related to ornithology (“study of birds”), based on the Ancient Greek ornis (ὄρνις), meaning “bird.” Erne is a closer cousin to Germanic words for “eagle” (Swedish örn). The name Arnold comes from Germanic roots literally meaning “eagle power” (having the strength of an eagle). For all these lofty monikers, Proto-Indo-European scholars reconstruct a deep-down root of *or-, “large bird.”

Why aquila? Why *or-? There’s something of a fierce shriek of an ancient avian in the former, and there’s something of man’s primal awe in the latter. Words. Words, they are ultimately passed down from so much noise-making—as Eagles fans certainly did upon their team’s first Super Bowl.

m ∫ r ∫

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