I was reading an H. Allen Orr New Yorker piece on evolution and genetics when I hit the sentence “Similarly, a gene that affects pigmentation in birds like the chicken and the bananaquit also affects pigmentation in mammals like the jaguar and you.” The word bananaquit struck me; I couldn’t find it in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or the American Heritage Dictionary, but it was in the New Oxford American Dictionary:

bananaquit /bəˈnanəˌkwit/ a small songbird with a curved bill, typically with a white stripe over the eye, a sooty gray back, and yellow underparts. It is common in the West Indies and Central and South America… See QUIT2.

The latter entry says “[in combination] used in names of various small songbirds found in the Caribbean area, e.g. bananaquit, grassquit” and adds that the word is “probably imitative.”
So I looked it up in the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage and found the pronuncation given as [ˈbʌna.nʌkwɪt] and the definition “a bird about 3 ins long, dark grey in color, with a yellow breast, a white streak over the eye, and known for its love of ripe bananas and grains of sugar, and in some places also for its warbling or making a ‘cheep-cheep’ sound”—gotta give them props for explaining the “banana” part. Other local names: beany bird (Jamaica), honey-creeper (St Vincent, US Virgin Is), see-see bird (Grenada), sikyé-bird (Trinidad), sugar-bird (Barbados, USVI), and yellow-breast (Antigua, Barbados, USVI). You can see some pictures here.


  1. I took pictures of this sweetie when at Tobago Grafton Caledonian bird sanctuary few years ago; a chirping cheery featherball. Motmots were much more impressive.

  2. Wow, that motmot is gorgeous!

  3. Did anyone else notice the weird vowel [a] in the suggested pronunciation? If this is an American word, I would have expected [æ].

  4. ‘Honey-creeper’ seems to be used for a number of different birds. It’s the only one of those terms I’d encountered before, though not necessarily referring to that bird.

  5. Honeycreepers refers to a category of birds, like doves, ducks, or finches. There are many species of honeycreeper.
    Why are ducks called ducks and gulls called gulls and doves called doves? Enquiring minds want to know.

  6. I associate honeycreepers with Hawaii.

  7. Richard ffrench offers this typically colourful description of the bananaquit’s song in his Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago:
    “The song of the male is a rapid, high-pitched and variable chatter, interspersed with sibilant squeaks and wheezes; both sexes utter the high squeak separately. There is noticeable variation between the songs of different subspecies.”
    Bananaquits, like hummingbirds, are surprisingly fearless, considering their small size (ffrench calls them “very confiding”). They are very common here in Trinidad–as I type this I can hear a pair of them in my back garden. The local name “sikyé-bird” supplied by Allsopp’s DCEU would traditionally be spelled “sucrier-bird”, which gives a better idea of its etymology; we also have a variety of small, sweet banana called the sucrier fig which, as you might expect, bananaquits are very fond of.

  8. ACW: That’s the NOAD’s symbol for the [æ] vowel. What’s weird to me is the Caribbean pronunciation, with a stressed mid vowel in the first syllable and an unstressed long vowel in the second: BUN-aah-naquit.
    Nicholas: Thanks very much for that informative comment (although I am now filled with envy for your Trinidadian life, especially as we head for winter here in Massachusetts). I just looked up sikyé-bird in DCEU, and it says “from association with sikyé-fig wh it loves”; under sikyé-fig it says “Fr Cr sucrier sugar + CarA Fr figue ‘banana’,” so they do provide the information you mention, you just have to follow the bouncing cross-references.

  9. Ronald Orenstein says

    The term “honeycreeper” was originally associated with two groups of birds, once thought to be related: the Hawaiian Honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) and the Neotropical honeycreepers (Coerebidae). Thje Hawaiian honeycreepers are now known to be highly modified descendants of cardueline finches, and are now included as a subfamily of the Finch family Fringillidae. The Coerebidae turns out (based on molecular and other evidence) to be a completely artificial assemblage. Most of its members turn out to represent repeated re-evolution of nectar-feeding adaptations by several different lineages of tanager. The AOU retains the Bannaquit as the only member of the Coerebidae, but the most recent evidence associates it with a group of tanager- or finch-like birds that build domed nests, including grassquits (probably the closest to the bananaquit), the Orangequit of Jamaica, West Indian “bullfinches” and the Galapagos finches.

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