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My Friend The Owl
By Steve G. Mileham
I love words and I love birds. I especially love owls, so I wondered what would happen if I combined all of these.
The owl has often been used as a reference for a bookish, eyebrowed, sometimes bespectacled or possibly ugly person (owlish – see the picture of ex-Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies) or someone preferring to stay up late (night owl). It has also been employed proverbially as having the appearance of gravity and wisdom (used ironically at times).1
Our friend the owl has featured all throughout legend and history in many different guises. It has been derided, appearing in the list of unclean birds in the Bible (Lev. 11:16; Deut. 14:15).2 It is a lonely figure: 'Its cry is a loud, prolonged, and very powerful hoot. I know nothing which more vividly brought to my mind the sense of desolation and loneliness than the re-echoing hoot of two or three of these great owls as I stood at midnight among the ruined temples of Baalbek.'3 In some cultures it is good luck. The Welsh believe that if a pregnant woman hears an owl her child will be blessed.
In my little corner of Australia (the bottom right-hand bit) I sometimes encounter Powerful Owls, Southern Boobooks (named after the sound they make) and Tawny Frogmouths. I get a lot of pleasure walking home late at night, listening to their answering calls in the treetops. Occasionally I'll even stumble across an obliterated ringtail possum at the base of a tree. 'I bet I know what did that,' I'll think to myself. For a bird sometimes associated with wisdom, quiet authority and even good luck, they can also be fearsome adversaries.
The word 'owl' derives from the Old English word ūle, from the Latin ululatus, meaning to wail, howl or shriek. Therefore it is directly imitative of the bird's natural sound, and yet another example of onomatopoeia.
Ūle is cognate with ūwila in Old Higher German, ūle in Lower German, the Dutch uil and ugla ('ugly' again?) from Old Norse and akin to Eule in modern German.4
Owls are members of the order Strigiformes, 'strig' being taken from the New Latin 'strix' or 'screech'. But not all owls are proper owls. Certain fancy types of owl-like domestic pigeons such are also called owls.
Personally I reckon it's a travesty - from fowl to owl!
1. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper 2010
2. Easton's Bible Dictionary 1897
3. The Natural History of the Bible. H. B. Tristram 1883
4. Collins English Dictionary. Digital Edition 2012