Is the American blackbird a ‘merel’?

  • By Koop Tissingh

(BrE) blackbird = merel (a solitary bird, all black)
(AmE) blackbird = (i.a.) epaulettenspreeuw (a group bird, often with extra colours)

There are several examples of animal- and plant-names that have different meanings in American- and British English. The best-known examples  are probably corn (BrE: koren / AmE: maïs) and buffalo (BrE: buffel / AmE: bizon). Some other examples are robin, lark, buzzard and elk (BrE: eland / AmE: wapitihert).

These differences originate from the time when the early European colonists used existing names for as yet unknown species that somehow resembled animals or plants from ‘the old world’ or, in the case of corn, that became the new staple crop for them.

Translators of American books can easily go wrong:
“I seen the blackbirds a-settin’ on the wires”, said Pa. > Ik zag de merels op de telegraafdraden zitten”, zei vader. (De Druiven der Gramschap, chapter 22, translated by Alice Snijder, published by L.J. Veen Klassiek)
The red-wing blackbirds massed their squadrons and practiced at maneuvering in the fields. > “De roodgevleugelde merels vormden hun esquadrons en oefenden in het manoeuvreren boven de velden.” (Aan een Onbekende God, chapter 8, translated by E.D. Veltman-Boissevain)

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