HERN.

I ran across a reference to Yeats’s (repellent) play The Herne’s Egg and naturally wondered what a herne might be. Turns out it’s an archaic spelling of hern, an alternate form of heron which the OED says “is archaic, poet., and dial.; but the word is often so pronounced, even when spelt heron.” It is? Or rather, was in 1898, when that section was published? I don’t suppose anyone knows anything more about this bygone oddity of English pronunciation. (Conrad?)
Incidentally, the ultimate etymology of heron is unknown; it’s immediately from Old French hairon, itself ultimately from Old High German haiger. This survived into Middle High German as heiger but ultimately lost out to its rival reiger, which is why Germans today say Reiher. According to Lutz Mackensen, the form is borrowed from Low German rei(j)er; the Dutch word, however, is reiger, and etymologiebank.nl says Proto-Germanic *hraigara– (the source of the r- forms) gave rise to *haigarō– (the source of the h- forms) by dissimilation. Etymology is a messy business.

Comments

  1. Evidence seems contradictory.
    1866 lecture by the Dean of Canterbury asserting that it is always pronounced that way in the south.
    1886 Notes & Queries discussion asserting that it is never pronounced that way in London (more comments later in same volume).

  2. See also Herne Hill, London SE24. I was told that the name of this part of London was derived from this name for a Heron.

  3. I don’t suppose anyone knows anything more about this bygone oddity of English pronunciation.

    Is it any more odd than falcon or salmon?

  4. Well, yes, unless you pronounce those words “fawn” and “sawn.” The normal pronunciation of heron, with reduced -o-, is comparable to the -o- in the words you mention. If you’re talking about the vocalization of -l- in those words, I’m not sure how that relates to heron.

  5. Evidence seems contradictory.
    Excellent finds!

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    I come from haunts of coot and hern
    (first line of Tennyson’s “The Brook”)

  7. I didn’t know that a Reiher is a heron ! But then I didn’t exactly know what a heron is either. Duden sez the basic sense of the verb is “caw”/”screech hoarsely” [mhd. reiger, ahd. reigaro, eigtl. = Krächzer, (heiserer) Schreier].
    The colloquial expression reihern means to puke your guts out, as herons do for their kiddos. Could it be that the onomatopoietic sense is just as relevant to the phonetic vagaries of the word in different languages, as are the starred dissimilations ?

  8. What does “flushed” mean in the following passage from this WiPe article ?:

    Herons are also known as “shitepokes” …, or euphemistically as “shikepokes” or “shypokes”. Webster’s Dictionary suggests that herons were given this name because of their habit of defecating when flushed. The terms “shitepoke” or “shikepoke” can be used as insults in a number of situations. For example, the term “shikepoke” appears in the 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs, and in the 1943 musical play Oklahoma!
    The 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “shitepoke” for the small green heron of North America (Butorides virescens) as originating in the United States, citing a published example from 1853. The OED also observes that “shiterow” or “shederow” are terms used for herons, and also applied as derogatory terms meaning a “thin weakly person”. This name for a heron is found in a list of gamebirds in a royal decree of James VI (1566–1625) of Scotland. The OED speculates that “shiterow” is a corruption of “shiteheron”

    Flushed out by hunters ? I know flushed when defecated, but not the other way around.
    I ‘spect the “row” in “shiterow” is related to Reiher.

  9. Yes, “flushed” = “exposed or chased from a place of concealment.”

  10. The curious thing was that the article describes the way herons stir up and probe for prey with their feet as “flushing out hidden prey”. So I thought that “defecating when flushed” might mean “defecating when flushed with success in flushing out prey”.

  11. Maybe it’s more like the way Americans pronounce “caramel” as “carmel”? (dropping an unstressed vowel after an R)
    Is there a relationship to the crossword puzzle favourite “ern” or “erne”, a type of sea-eagle?

  12. Shitting from sheer joy, as it were. That would finally be an indisputable mark of the superiority of humans over other animals – people only shit from fear.

  13. dearieme says:

    I have been repeating “heron” to myself. I think I’ve found that I pronounce it ‘hern’, but it’s hard to be sure once I’ve made myself self-conscious. I say “salmon” as two syllables, “heron” as one.

  14. I wonder if the question is — how is “hern(e)” pronounced? I read it as rhyming with “fern” or “learn”, and I assume from his statement that Hat does as well, but some of the comments leave me wondering if some people read it essentially as “her’n”, rhyming with, um, “cairn”.

  15. I used to be interested in Greek mythology and Gods and Goddesses. I thought it was a kind fern cause it rhymes. It’s interesting to know hern.

  16. I pronounce “heron” with two syllables, and I have the impression that Hat does, too.

  17. Yes, like Ran my immediate impression was that “hern(e)” would rhyme with “fern”, but then I wondered if maybe I was missing something due to my non-rhotic privilege. Especially after reading Sili’s comment, which I assume was saying something like this
    falcon -> falc’n
    salmon -> salm’n
    heron -> her’n (=”hern(e)” ?)
    What pronunciation does the OED give for “hern(e)”?

  18. American comedian Red Skelton, in a 50s skit about a Martian coming to earth and needing coins for a payphone, vending machine or some such:
    “Does anyone have change for a hern?”
    Someone at this site says Milton Berle cracked the line, but I remember otherwise.

  19. Yes, like Ran my immediate impression was that “hern(e)” would rhyme with “fern”
    I’m quite sure that’s the case; it’s the only possible interpretation of the way the OED (and others, like the Notes & Queries link MMcM provides) discusses it.

  20. Matt: The OED2 treats heron | hern in a single article, and gives the pronunciations /ˈhɛrən/ and /hɜːn/. The OED3 has not yet reached the word.

  21. Rodger C says:

    I thought Sili was referring to the loss of /l/ uin many pronunciations of “falcon” and most of “salmon.”

  22. John Emerson says:
  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    This seems an oddly non-drifty thread. I lack the competence to challenge Hat on his negative view of the Yeats play in question, but I was rather hoping someone else would (I mean, even if Hat is right, the back and forth might be edifying or at least amusing).

  24. I was wondering about LH’s opinion of the Yeat’s play myself. I had never heard of The Herne’s Egg, and it appears to be a late and fairly obscure work – even the Wikipedia article on Yeats doesn’t discuss it. But some googling reveals it is apparently a comical take on rape (in this case a woman raped by a God disguised as a bird), which does sound like questionable taste.

  25. If you’re talking about the vocalization of -l- in those words, I’m not sure how that relates to heron.

    My only point was that the pronunciations of those words are equally odd to the uninitiated.

  26. I was, Rodger, but my impression was that those l’s have never been pronounced before now, when people are turning to spelling pronunciations.
    I certainly had never heard of ‘sammen’ till I failed to get a sandwich, and ‘fawken’ I only learnt of here.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    Stu: I like that row/reiher connection. I think they are regular. At least the vowels are, and the other row/reihe are cognates, aren’t they?

  28. Jay Electronica actually says “Sal-a-mon” in his excellent song “Victory in My Clutches.” For a second I wondered if that might be a New Orleans pronunciation, but it’s probably just an idiosyncrasy.

  29. Charles Perry says:

    Tennyson rhymed hern with fern.

  30. Trond: I like that row/reiher connection. I think they are regular. At least the vowels are, and the other row/reihe are cognates, aren’t they?
    You’re asking me about regular and cognate ?? Ni idea. I was merely pursuing my layman’s notion that the sounds herons make, in combination with phonetic mechanisms typical of a given language, may help to make sense of the words for herons that arise in that language.
    When I wrote “I ‘spect the ‘row’ in ‘shiterow’ is related to Reiher“, I was assuming that “row” here is pronounced /rau/, i.e. “row” in the sense of “noisy disturbance”. MW says the origin of this word is unknown. But MHG reiger and “row” = noise might be related in the way I am indicating.
    Of course all this is based on an assumption that there was an objective reality – at least sometime in the past, hee hee ! – containing heron noises that sounded the same to everybody but were onomatopoeticized in systematically similar ways, subject to phonetic constraints.
    This sounds so sedately plausible that I could almost believe it myself. All those fancy words like reality, onomatopoetic, constraints and systematic !

  31. Dammit, I meant “in systematically different ways”.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    My son-in-law’s professional specialty is rescuing and rehabilitating aquatic birds, so I have had many opportunities to hear the word heron. I had always thought everyone said it the same way, but a few months ago I had to ask some bird rescuers to repeat a bird name that I could not identify: it must have been hern. I had not realized until now that this was another pronunciation of heron, not a mishearing on my part.

  33. On TV I’ve never heard heron pronounced “hern”. I’m sure it would throw me off track.

  34. Apparently no relationship between this herne and herne the hunter. Is the rape of the priestess as consumation with the God Herne the repellant aspect? There is an interesting paper, Patterns in Yeats’s Imagery: “The Herne’s Egg”
    F. A. C. Wilson
    Modern Philology
    Vol. 55, No. 1 (Aug., 1957), pp. 46-52
    Published by: The University of Chicago Press
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/435271
    which posits an almalgamation of Indian, Tibetan, Swedenborgian and Irish sources for the theme.

  35. I lack the competence to challenge Hat on his negative view of the Yeats play in question, but I was rather hoping someone else would
    Well, you be the judge: it’s a comedy involving a woman who has dedicated herself to be the bride of the Great Herne and tend the herne’s egg, but the warrior hero decides that what she needs is to be raped by himself and a half dozen of his warrior buddies, so they carry through with that plan. A laugh a minute!

  36. Trond Engen says:

    You’re asking me about regular and cognate ??
    The question may have been formally directed to you, but was meant for the collected audience. But it’s /ow/, the diphtong of road, throw and stone, that regularly corresponds to German /ai/, Norwegian /ei/ and Dan./Sw. /e/. The Reihe of aus der Reihe (Derrick) looks like a cognate of row “line”. What I imagined was English *row “crane” as a cognate of German un-folk-etymolized *Reihe “crane”.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    On TV I’ve never heard heron pronounced “hern”. I’m sure it would throw me off track.
    That’s a symptom of ahernia.

  38. I’ve seen that Thurber “coot and hern” cartoon before, but I don’t believe I ever connected it with herons.
    How odd that (according to WiPe) the genus name of the ern is almost but not quite the same as the species name of the osprey (which is in another family). Haliaeetus vs haliaetus.
    A treasured memory from our honeymoon on Prince Edward Island 21 years ago is the time when we asked a guy standing on the dock next to us what that bird over there was, and he said something like “conrad”. It was some time before we realized that he had actually said “cormorant”. Actually I think we were in the Îles de la Madeleine that day.

  39. Empty: Then there’s the name of the Tokay gecko (whose trivial name comes from its call: to-kay! to-kay!): Gekko gecko. I could understand Gekko gekko or Gecko gecko, but why two spellings in one name?

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