Subject: [Tweeters] pronunciation of Gyrfalcon
Date: Sun Nov 24 07:42:08 PST 2019
From: Gary Bletsch - garybletsch at

Dear Tweeters,
Thanks to Elaine Chuang for sharing the funny cartoon about the word Gyrfalcon!
At the risk of trying to sound too much like the monocle-wearing caricature in that cartoon, the pronunciation and etymology of that word is worthy of consideration.
In every English dictionary I've ever checked for the word gyrfalcon, the same one or two origins for the word appear. Most of them say that the gyr part of the word means "sacred," related to such words of Greek origin as hieroglyph and hierarchy. There is also another line of thought that relates gyr to an ancient Greek word for "hawk."
I have always thought that the "sacred falcon" hypothesis of the etymology seemed a bit far-fetched. The "hawk" hypothesis does seem reasonable to me.
In every German dictionary I've ever checked for the German word Gerfalk--which is what German-speaking people call Gyrfalcons--there is an utterly different etymology. 
It seems to me that the words Gyrfalcon and Gerfalk would just about have to come from the same root. They're so similar. Of course, the German name for this bird starts with a "hard G," as in the English words gear and gag. Except for loan-words, German does not have the French-style "soft G" that one hears in such English names and words as George and ginger. Whereas in the King's English, this bird's name starts with that soft, French-style "G." That's why we say something like "jurr-falcon."
The etymology in the German dictionaries goes back to the one that appeared in the dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, dating to the mid-1800's. That etymology for Gerfalk traces the word back to an ancient German word ger, which meant a sort of Teutonic lance or spear. That's the same ger that appears in various given names, such as Gerhard, Gerd, and even Gerald. Heck, even my first name Gary might derive from that!
It has been suggested that the bird was given its German name because the markings on the bird's undersides were fancied to resemble spearheads. I have always thought that there might be more to it than that; the bird itself is rather spear-like: fast, sharp, and deadly.
Thanks to the William the Conqueror and his Norman cohort, many of our English "G" words are uttered with a soft, French sound, as in the accepted pronunciation for Gyrfalcon and in the first G of Gerygone. However, since it is the hodgepodge language known as English, we also have bird names that feature the "hard G," such as Garganey, goose, and gull!
Joe figure!
Yours truly,
Gary Bletsch
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