The gayguin

A delightful Christmas present (from Kim Darnell), only recently arrived: this t-shirt (which I am wearing as I type this):

Gay Penguin Rainbow Pride Flag, from the teeherivar site

gayguin is a pretty straightforwardly a portmanteau of gay penguin. The arguable etymological components of penguin seem to have nothing to do with the matter; from NOAD:

ORIGIN late 16th century (originally denoting the great auk): possibly of Welsh origin, from pen gwyn ‘white head’. [pen ‘head’, gwyn ‘white’]

13 Responses to “The gayguin”

  1. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Nice shirt!! Re etymology: The Spanish word is pingüino. A quick, pre-coffee check is suggesting various etymologies, agreeing on the Spanish being from French pingouin, one then saying the French is from Dutch pinguïn. Don’t know if that’s compatible with it being ultimately from Welsh. I wonder where those Welsh-speakers would have been living in order to see and name penguins. Argentina? There were a bunch of Welsh speakers in Patagonia. For that matter, where would the Dutch have been? Anyway, a cute side-discovery: Wiktionary tells me pingüino is Chilean slang for ‘student.’ Awww.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It does seem clear that the label was first applied to the great auk. On that creature, from Wikipedia:

      The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is a species of flightless alcid that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus. It is not closely related to the birds now known as penguins, which were discovered later and so named by sailors because of their physical resemblance to the great auk.

      It bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the great auks. When not breeding, they spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.

      • Ellen Kaisse Says:

        It’s all very confusing, the etymology, I mean. (Apologies to your readers who came here for the rainbow gayguin t-shirt and are finding tedious comments about the etymology of penguin. But I shall persist, since the blog is ‘mostly about language’ 🙂 Since there were Spanish speakers along the coast of Patagonia and in the Falklands/Malvinas for many centuries, encountering many species of penguins in vast numbers, I am not sure they would have waited for sailors who knew about Great Auks to name them. So a Romance origin, rather than a Celtic one, doesn’t seem out of the question. Why some sources think the word came to Spanish via French, and ultimately from Dutch, I don’t know! Possibly the contributors to the various wiki articles on penguins and great auks are not talking to one another, so there are internal contradictions in the entries.

  2. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    I thought penguin was derived from Latin pinguis, ‘fat’, because penguins have a lot of subcutaneous fat. A pinguecula is a benign lesion of the white of the eye, looks like a small drop of yellow fat.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Speculative etymology is only too easy.

      • Ellen Kaisse Says:

        I think the wikipedia article actually supports Robert’s etymology, saying “The generic name is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese name for the species, in turn from Latin pinguis meaning ‘plump.’ Looking at pictures, the birds don’t seem to have white heads. And the NOAD entry admits its own speculativeness with ‘possibly of…’ Alas, much of what is printed in reputable dictionaries for etymologies often seems pretty speculative don’t you think? Even the OED has occasionally had me tearing my hair out. (I should provide an example in order to be credible but I haven’t run into a case recently enough to come up with one.) The supposedly august Real Academia Española’s two volume dictionary is frustratingly laconic and flatly assertive, and I bet there are some howlers in there. Dictionaries just aren’t great places for long, nuanced discussions of etymologies.

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        I should have checked OED2. Apparently the origin of ‘penguin’ is really obscure, and the ‘pinguis’ origin is “surmise”.

        I’ve found the online Realacademia dictionary useful for Spanish etymologies, particularly for the many Arabic loan-words in Spanish.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Ellen Kaisse. I might have spoken too quickly; I am offered so many sort-of-plausible etymologies on speculative grounds that I’ve lost my patience. But, as you note, many of the etymological suggestions in respectable sources are themselves dubious. Doing actual etymology is, in fact, very very hard and beyond my capabilities.

  3. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Arnold, I would venture that if anyone has the capabilities to do actual etymology, it is you. But I think your readers understand that you can’t be expected to do the research for a whole scholarly article before posting a daily blog entry! I also understand that comments in blogs are usually pretty off-the-cuff and that responding seriously to all of our speculations would be a full-time and frustrating job. So just let us natter among ourselves most of the time and maybe something good will shake out at the end. Robert: thanks for the OED pointer. Hanging up real work for the day and about to go look at the entry myself. I do think that a blog about language that is also often a blog about penguins is the ideal place to push forward the frontiers of penguin etymology!

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Well, no. Doing proper etymologies involves deep immersion in the culture and history of the areas and peoples involved, and the study of an enormous number of texts from the periods in question, interpreting their context. That’s light years out of my abilities.

    • Stewart Kramer Says:

      Sailing and fishing don’t require much literacy, but they generate a lot of vocabulary involving sea birds, including slang, jargon, and other folk processes. That, and all the cultural contact and language borrowing enabled by sailing, and it’s a miracle that any etymology is even possible.

  5. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Agree with all of the above. (Though I still tend to think that someone as erudite as Arnold could do just about anything if he wanted to spend his time that way.) Stewart is dead-on about fishing vocabulary; I know from even my small personal experience that the names of fish from place to place even at one point in time are extremely varied and messy, with the same name meaning different fish and the same fish getting different names. As for penguins, I read the OED entry several times. It’s good but far from definitive. The OED leans to the Welsh white-head source and cites Dutch mentions of the term and 17thc. N. Eur. texts saying that it comes from Welsh, but OED admits they hypothesis has flaws, among them the fact that Great Auks do not have white heads. They also mention the Romance ‘fat’ etymology as plausible, though they’re not so taken with it. However, do we know how northern-eurocentric the OED is? With peoples all along the coast of Argentina and Chile being intimately familiar with penguins, both before and after the arrival of Europeans, they must have had words for penguin both in indigenous languages and in Spanish. Penguins were prized for their fat. So I am just suspicious of the word being a borrowing from Welsh. Someone should interest a student in this topic. It would be great — you’d look into the early colonial Spanish sources, find out what the Mapuches called penguins, look at contact between N. European sailors in the coastal waters off Argentina, set up timelines… Very interdisciplinary, as Arnold says.

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