Pavo, pavonis Latin ‘peacock’
Derivative Words in Modern Tongues
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for example.”
Today’s word cage abounds with English derivatives of the Latin word for peacock, pavo, pavonis. Peacock! That motley pirate chest of birddom, with its kaleidoscopic crest of upright plumules, its princely array of webbed tail coverts.
True, most of the following peacock terms are literary words of frequent beauty and rare use. But, must the student of English go about the streets mono-grunting syllabic simplicities to mobs of word-poor oafs?
“I don’t not need no words fer to live,” gobble the drug-witted slackers and know-little losers whom one so often stumbles over, when, upon the public way, one encounters the vulgar throng buying glow-in-the-dark dildos at the mall sex shop, the ones that sing “Feelings” when the vibratory battery is turned on.
Should we let unlettered hoi polloi set the style of spoken and written English? I say not. Ought not one’s speech be refreshed daily by the exotic sheen of rarity, the snob’s delight in obscurity, the peacock fan of etymological brandishment.
Let us wave always the pavonine vane of parlance.
Strut word power. Flaunt eloquence. Preen yourself in your many-colored coat of words, in the face of the unalphabeted buffoons, so that they may hear your vocabulary and know in their shabby, hamburgered hearts that they are low, abject, sunk to an eternal silence where — soundless worms — they slime unworded ways through dirt and earth, never capable of knowing their existential condition through language and thus improving it, but, forever, leaving as sole token of their earthly sojourn, nothing but the dried mucus trail of a mute slug.
We think with words. “The rest is silence.”
This is not the pawn of chess. That pawn descends from Middle French peon ‘foot-soldier’ from Latin pes, pedis ‘foot,’ with stops along the way for such reflexes as Spanish peón ‘foot soldier, laborer, poor person.’
Our pawn is a noun in the language of heraldry and refers to an image of a peacock which surmounts a coat of arms as a charge. We picture two such arms and crests below.
The armorial bearings of the Harcourt family of Wincham, England, consist of arms: Or, two bars Gules, in chief a mullet charged with a crescent for cadency, and crest: A peacock close proper, charged with the cadency as in the arms.
In this heraldic crest is a peacock’s head proper.
This pawn has tiptoed down a mutable path indeed, from forms like Anglo-Norman poun, pown, Middle and Modern French paon, Medieval Italian paone, earlier and later Italian pavone, all from Latin pavo, pavonis ‘peacock.’
The Latin word pavo and the Anglo-Saxon pawe (from which the pea of peacock stems) are proably imitative of a peacock’s strange call, echoic then in origin. Germanic tongues early borrowed the Latin word to produce reflexes like Frisian pau , Old Saxon pao, Old High German pfawo and Old Norse pai.
Other Peacock Words
It must be remembered that the calls of the same bird species are, in various languages, notoriously different. For example, the ancient Greek word for peacock was ταῶς taos (or ταών taon), related to the Persian tavus. Recall the famous Peacock Throne of Persia, calloed in that language Takht-i-Tâvus. The Hebrew word tuki (plural tukkiyim) was probably borrowed from hieroglyphic Egyptian tekh. All these bird words are imitations of a peacock clucking.
Pavonine & Pavonaceous
Several English adjectives, as gloriously ornate as the tail they name, languish head-down in dictionaries when instead they deserve the bracing air of fresh use, where they may leap from lips to living lips.
Pavonine I have already employed in a sentence. It means in its dull literal use ‘of or pertaining to the peacock family of birds.’ In bursting metaphor however pavonine describes the showy startlement of a peacock’s iridescent feathers erected for bounteous display. Equally sonorant and suggestive of golden thrones of yore and knights in burnished armour flashing in the glint of sunset hills is: pavonaceous with its flowing sound of feathery amplitude, a polychrome eye-opener of an adjective.
The rara avis of peacock words is the verb to pavisand, possibly coined by English writer Rudyard Kipling who was at any rate the first to use it in print in 1910 CE. To pavisand is to flaunt like a peacock in wanton display opulent ornament, clothing or treasure. Elizabethan nobles in the royal court of the virgin queen were wont to pavisand luxuriant apparel, strutting in brocaded fencing mantles, with ruffs of French lace at their collars, embroidered doublets buttoned with carved ivory clasps, male hosiery clamped to manly thigh in the gaudy golden gauze of excess.
Pavo in the Sky with Peacocks
Pavo is a constellation in the southern sky. In Australia, part of Pavo is sometimes called “the Saucepan” when it is used as a guide to finding the south by the stars.
Spanish for ‘stuffed turkey.’ El pavon is the peacock in Spanish. Many North Americans, brought up to believe even the most unreliable of children’s history books, imagine that the Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey was first brought to America by pious Puritans. Piffle, balderdash and poppycock. Roast native wild turkey (pavo in Spanish) had already been a holiday tradition in South America, when John Standish was pumping his little corncob out behind the barn. El relleno sudamericano was a more complex and richly varied stuffing than our current turkey glop, a dowdy plop stuffed with clotted Wonderbread doused with too much savory, peppered as for a sneezefest, instead of the toothsome amalgam of dried fruits, moistened plant pulps, citric berries and choice nutmeats favored and flavored by indigenous ingenuity. Native South Americans even injected local fermented liquors under the turkey’s skin to heighten the stuffing’s flavor.
Note on gaudy plumage: Ornithologists now know that peahens use both the static eye-spots and the iridescent plumage of male peacocks to select their radiant mates.
Juno and The Peacock
The most familiar peacock in world literature squawks in the fabled annals of Aesopica. In the Aesop’s fable in question, a querulous bird complains to the goddess Juno that, sure, he has glorious plumage but an ugly voice.
Phaedrus (c. 15 BC – c. 50 AD) was a Roman teller of fables, probably a Thracian slave who lived through the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. He was the first fabulist to Latinize entire books of fables, retelling in iambic metre the old Greek prose animal fables of Aesop. Here is Perry’s English translation of Aesop’s tale Pavo ad Iunonem de voce sua (The peacock’s complaint about his voice told to the goddess Juno) as retold in Latin by Phaedrus:
“The peacock came to see Juno, because he could not accept with equanimity the fact that the goddess had not given him the song of the nightingale. The peacock complained that the nightingale's song was wondrously beautiful to every ear, while he was laughed at by everyone as soon as he made the slightest sound. Juno then consoled the peacock and said, 'You are superior in beauty and superior in size; there is an emerald splendour that shines about your neck, and your tail is a fan filled with jewels and painted feathers.' The peacock protested, 'What is the point of this silent beauty, if I am defeated by the sound of my own voice?' 'Your lot in life has been assigned by the decision of the Fates,' said Juno. 'You have been allotted beauty; the eagle, strength; the nightingale, harmony; the raven has been assigned prophetic signs, while unfavourable omens are assigned to the crow; and so each is content with his own particular gift.'
Do not strive for something that was not given to you, lest your disappointed expectations become mired in discontent.”
Note: Juno (Greek Hera) was the consort of Jupiter and queen of the gods. Just as the eagle was Jupiter's special bird, the peacock was dear to Juno."
Here’s another sprightly version, this one an English versification of Aesop’s Greek prose tale by C. Smart.
“Her favorite bird to Juno came,
And was in dudgeon at the dame,
That she had not attuned her throat
With Philomela's matchless note;
"She is the wonder of all ears;
But when I speak the audience sneers
The goddess to the bird replied,
(Willing to have him pacified,)
" You are above the rest endued
With beauty and with magnitude;
Your neck the emerald's gloss outvie?,
And what a blaze of gemmeous dies
Shines from the plumage of your tail!"
"All this dumb show will not avail,"
Cries he, "if I'm surpass'd in voice."
"The fates entirely have the choice
Of all the lots-fair form is yours;
The eagle's strength his prey secures;
The nightingale can sing an ode;
The crow and raven may forebode:
All these in sheer contentment crave
No other voice than Nature gave."
By affectation be not sway'd,
Where Nature has not lent her aid;
Nor to that flattering hope attend,
Which must in disappointment end.”
Irish playwright Sean O’Casey used the myth in his 1924 theater masterpiece, Juno & The Paycock, where Juno is a strong Irish wife to an idle braggart husband to whom misfortune befalls.
Well, birdlovers, that’s our tail of peacock words. Hope you’re a fan?
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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