All you never knew you wanted to know about the language of hawking
Among the many pleasures of reading Helen Macdonald’s moving memoir H is for Hawk is an inauguration into the arcane terminology of hawking. Mastery of this complex lexicon was a badge of social status in the Middle Ages. According to medieval legend, the terms for hawking and hunting were introduced by Sir Tristram, one of King Arthur’s knights; in his 15th century Arthurian epic, Le Morte Darthur, Thomas Malory praised such ‘goodly tearmys’ whereby ‘men of worshyp may discever a jentylman frome a yeoman and a yeoman frome a vylayne’. So if you’re thinking of trying your hand at hawking, or just want to avoid being mistaken for a villain (or ‘peasant’, as vylayne would translate), be sure to learn the following goodly terms.
Goshawks and falcons
Macdonald’s book recounts her attempts to train a goshawk, a bird which takes its name from the Old English gos ‘goose’ and hafoc ‘hawk’. The Old French name for the bird, austruchier, gives us the modern English term for a keeper of goshawks: austringer. The goshawk should not be confused with the similar-looking peregrine falcon, whose name is taken from the Latin peregrinus ‘foreign’ or ‘pilgrim’ (per- ‘through’ + ager ‘field’), so-called because they were trapped by falconers when on migration (a kind of pilgrimage), rather than being taken from the nest. An adult bird caught in the wild is known as a haggard; such birds were considered more difficult to tame and more likely to go astray: this is the sense invoked in Othello’s reference to Desdemona being proved a haggard in Shakespeare’s play. In modern English this word describes someone worn out and exhausted by anxiety. A juvenile bird caught while on migration is known as a passage hawk or passager, while a bird taken from the nest is termed an eyas. Deriving ultimately from Latin nidus ‘nest’, the spelling of this word is the result of a false division, by which a neyas was mistakenly understood to be an eyas; a similar process lies behind words like adder, apron, and umpire (compare earlier nadder, napron, and noumpere ‘no peer’). A hawk whose talons have been removed is called a poltroon, a word which survives today in the sense ‘worthless wretch’ or ‘coward’.
You need to be careful how you employ the term falcon itself, since amongst falconers it is only used of the female bird. This word derives from Latin falco/falconem, from a word for ‘sickle’, inspired by the similarity of this blade to the bird’s hooked talons. The male bird is known as the tercel, from Latin tertius ‘third’. This name may be a reference to its diminutive size, since the male is approximately a third smaller than the female. An alternative theory, however, links the name to the belief that the third egg in a clutch would produce a male bird.
Goshawks belong to the genus known by the Latin term accipiter, from a root meaning ‘swift feather’. These short-winged hawks are also termed ignoble birds for their tendency to chase after (or rake) their quarry in a rather inelegant manner. By contrast, long-winged hawks, which seize their quarry in a single graceful swoop, are considered noble birds. The word quarry, referring to the hunted prey, originally described the part of the slaughtered deer offered to the hounds as a reward for their role in the hunt.
Sounding like a falconer
But sounding like a competent falconer is more than simply knowing the correct names for the birds. You’ll also need to master the proper way to refer to its various parts and behaviour. Reference to the bird’s wings, claws, or tail will immediately expose you as a novice; to an experienced falconer these are sails, pounces, and train. Confusingly, the part of the bird’s leg between thigh and foot is known as an arm. There are no fewer than three terms to describe the way the bird wipes its beak after feeding: feaking, sewing, or sniting. When the bird beats its wings impatiently in an attempt to fly off the perch, it is bating (from the French battre ‘beat’). The sport’s gentlemanly origins are evident from its genteel euphemisms: hawks don’t defecate, they mute, while vomiting is casting or gleaming – perhaps the result of gurgiting ‘choking after having taken too large a mouthful’ – a problem not limited to hawks. Hearty drinking by a hawk is known as bousing; from a Dutch word meaning ‘drink to excess’, this is the origin of our modern slang term booze. A hawk that is in the proper condition to hunt is in yarak, from a Persian word meaning ‘power’ or ‘strength’.
The tools of the falconer’s trade include jesses, leather straps that fit through the anklets, the cadge (related to cage: a wooden frame on which the hawk is carried to the field); even the leather ring used to attach a bell to the bird’s leg – enabling it to be tracked when in flight – has its own term: bewet. The creance, a long line which prevents the half-trained hawk from flying away, takes its name from Old French créance ‘trust’, ‘confidence’ (also the source of Modern English credence) since it was used to restrain a bird that could not yet be fully trusted to return to the handler.
While knowing the correct terms and owning the right gear will help you get started, Macdonald’s book makes it clear that there’s a lot more to hawking than this. If you’re seriously considering taking up this hobby, you’ll also need a freezer full of animal carcasses, a strong stomach, and endless resources of patience. And it’s probably best not to start with a goshawk.