I was reading a TLS review of a book about Darwin’s researches into barnacles (see, I told you I’d read anything, but you didn’t believe me) and it occurred to me that I didn’t know the etymology of the word “barnacle.” Well, after much investigation, I still don’t, but nobody else does either; the OED says all that can be said, which isn’t much: “ME. bernekke, bernake, identical with OF. bernaque, med.L. bernaca, berneka… Ulterior history unknown.” However, there is much more to be said about the more recent history of the word, and the American Heritage says it well:

The word barnacle is known from as far back as the early 13th century. At that time it did not refer to the crustacean, as it does nowadays, but rather to a species of waterfowl presently known as the barnacle goose; more than 300 years went by before barnacle was used to refer to the crustacean. One might well wonder what the connection between these two creatures is. The answer lies in natural history. Until fairly recent times, it was widely believed that certain animals were engendered spontaneously from particular substances. Maggots, for instance, were believed to be generated from rotting meat. The barnacle goose breeds in the Arctic, a fact not known for a long time; since no one ever witnessed the bird breeding, it was thought to be spontaneously generated from trees along the shore, or from rotting wood. Wood that has been in the ocean for any length of time is often dotted with barnacles, and it was natural for people to believe that the crustaceans were also engendered directly from the wood, like the geese. In fact, as different as the two creatures might appear to us, they share a similar trait: barnacles have long feathery cirri that are reminiscent of a bird’s plumage. This led one writer in 1678 to comment on the “multitudes of little Shells; having within them little Birds perfectly shap’d, supposed to be Barnacles [that is, barnacle geese].” In popular conception the two creatures were thus closely linked. Over time the crustacean became the central referent of the word, and the bird was called the barnacle goose for clarity, making barnacle goose an early example of what we now call a retronym.

Isn’t that interesting?
What’s annoying is that the Oxford Russian Dictionary, in a fit of Oxonian antiquarianism, ignores the modern meaning and defines barnacle as morskaya utochka [literally ‘little sea duck’]. You have to go elsewhere, say to Katzner, to find that barnacle in the modern sense is usonogii rak [‘whiskerfoot crawfish’]. Furthermore, Katzner gives a different Russian equivalent of the old avian sense: beloshchokaya kazarka [‘whitecheeked brant goose’]. (Kenneth Katzner, I regret to say, died on May 25 of this year.)
Oh, I almost forgot—there’s an entirely different word “barnacle,” ‘a kind of powerful bit or twitch for the mouth of horse or ass, used to restrain a restive animal; later, spec. an instrument consisting of two branches joined by a hinge, placed on the nose of a horse, if he has to be coerced into quietness when being shoed or surgically operated upon’ (in the words of the OED), with its own entirely different obscure etymology: “ME. bernak, a. OF. bernac ‘camus’; of which bernacle seems to be a dim. form.” Fortunately, this word has sunk quietly into the dusty recesses of the English vocabulary and you can forget all about it.


  1. I thought this was going to be a post about how Titin’s Captain Haddock’s exclamations were translated into different languages … but fascinating nonetheless.

  2. Mrs. James Joyce’s maiden name was barnacle. Joyce’s father made the obligatory appropriate joke: “She’ll never leave him”.

  3. That’s right, I’d forgotten that; I presume the family name is from the Warwickshire town Barnacle, which in 1086 was Bernhangre ‘wooded slope by a barn’ [OE bere-aern ‘barley-store, barn’ + hangra ‘wood on a steep slope’]. Barnacles all over!

  4. barnacle is one of those funny words that you look at and think “that doesn’t look unusual…” until you look at it again and think “But I don’t know where it comes from…”
    Isn’t a funny coincidence that a word you ran across while reading Darwin ended up with an etymology touching on spontaneous generation. Darwin would roll over in his grave. 🙂

  5. Katzner died? 🙁
    Incidentally, my copy of the dictionary is falling apart. I don’t know what to do with it–I couldn’t have learned Russian without it, and it would break my heart to throw it away.

  6. Maggots, for instance, were believed to be generated from rotting meat.
    Oh ugh, thanks, you’ve just reminded me of that scientist I read about in seventh grade Advanced Science who demonstrated that was untrue by putting sealing up jars of rotting meat and triumphantly demonstrating the absence of maggots, but jars with netting over them had maggots….whateverhisnamewas….Redi, yeah. Ghod, what sticks in the mind.

  7. Ah, how oft have I experienced the vital powers of the human sweat!

  8. It’s funny, I recently bought a book by the name of Altered English by one Jeffrey Kacirk (I won’t even try to link the page on Amazon 😉 ). It’s a collection of “Surprising Meanings of Familiar Words,” i.e. obsolete (or very obscure) definitions for commonly known words, defined in quotations from antiquated dictionaries (et sim.)
    I was struck by how much it would appeal to you. Then I stumbled on this entry:

    barnacles Spectacles, or rather reading-glasses, so called because in shape they resemble the twitchers used by farriers to keep under restraint unruly horses during the process of bleeding, dressing, or shoeing. This instrument, formerly called a barnacle, consisting of two branches joined at one end by a hinge, was fixed on the horse’s nose. Dr. Latham considers the word a corruption of binocles, double-eyes. (E. Cobham Brewer, 1887)

    As if this word didn’t have enough meanings already!

  9. Thanks, I’ll look out for the book!

  10. Here is a list of Captain Haddock curses, with a link to a page that lists them in French.

  11. Ha, Wikipedia says (on both relevant pages) that the goose is named for the crustacean!

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