So I finally got a copy of the new 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and in flipping through it I happened on the unfamiliar word chukar. It represents a rather handsome partridge, Alectoris chukar, but what caught my attention were the pronunciation and etymology:
chukar \’chə-kər also chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor]

My immediate reactions were:

1) The preferred pronunciation sounds exactly like chukker ‘one of the periods of play in a polo match’ and doesn’t go with the etymology. What’s going on?

2) “Hindi cakor & Urdu chakor“? Those are the same word; you’re just using two different language names and transcription systems! What’s going on?

I went back to the 9th and 10th editions of the dictionary and found an interesting sequence:

chukar partridge \chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor]

chukar \’chə-kər also chə-‘kär\ [Hindi cakor]

So here’s what I think. In between the 9th (1987) and 10th (1993) editions, the M-W lexicographers discovered that the people who had imported the bird into the western US called it simply “chukar,” not “chukar partridge,” and furthermore pronounced it in a completely anglicized form, not knowing or caring that that made it a homophone of some polo term. So far so good. But then somebody decided that it wasn’t fair to say it was from Hindi, since it was borrowed at a time (two hundred years ago) when there was no clear separation between what we now call “Hindi” and “Urdu,” both of them being cultural variants of the local lingua franca then called “Hindustani.” This makes perfect sense. But then, instead of calling the etymon “Hindi-Urdu cakor” or “Hindustani cakor,” they invented a completely spurious distinction between what look to the untutored eye like two different preforms, apparently because their transcription system for Hindi uses c for the unaspirated \ch\ (presumably using ch for the aspirated consonant), whereas the one for Urdu uses ch for the same phoneme (and presumably chh for the aspirated one). I’m sorry, but this just won’t do. If you get a result like that, it’s time to revisit your theories of transcription, etymology, or entry writing.

Incidentally, the AHD gives only the etymological pronunciation (chuh-KAHR), which I’m guessing is out of date for American use (or why would M-W have changed it?), but a simpler and better etymology: Hindi cakor, from Sanskrit cakorah.

I’ll finish with the charming definition found in Platt’s Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English:

cakor S[anskrit] چکور चकोर ćakor, s.m. The Bartavelle or Greek partridge, Perdix rufa, or Tetrao rufus (fabled to subsist upon moon-beams, and to eat fire at the full moon).


  1. All that aside… I have it on good authority that a superb way to hunt them is to float a helium balloons. They’ll all look up to keep an eye on the potential predator in the sky while ignoring you as you sneak up. I hear tons of stories about hunting them in Nevada last summer.

  2. So how do the people who tell you the stories pronounce it — chukker?

  3. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    I never knew how to pronouce chukar properly, but it is a great Scrabble word.

  4. xiaolongnu says

    We have them here in Hawai’i, where they are pronounced “chukker.” They were introduced as gamebirds in the 19th century. I have seen them on the island of Kaua’i, though they are also found elsewhere. There is not a lot of polo played on the slopes of Waimea Canyon, so I believe the conflict has never arisen.

  5. Cryptic Ned says

    It’s pronounced “chucker”, even among birdwatchers, who are notorious for following orthdoxy slavishly. (“Actually, it’s not the Common Snipe anymore. It’s the Wilson’s Snipe. And I’m so glad that I can finally call them “Rock Pigeons” instead of “Rock Doves”).
    The single-A baseball team in Idaho Falls used to be the Chukars, but is now the historically bizarre Idaho Falls Padres.

  6. I see chukars all the time working in the central Idaho wilderness. Chukar is really a quite fortuitous name for them: the folk etymology which most people proclaim is that it’s an onomatopoeic word. You often hear them before you see them, CHU-kar-chu-CHU-kar-kar-CHU-kar, in a 6/8 rhythm. Is the Hindustani word meaningful, or might it be onomatopoeic? They’re very pleasant little things to have around in any case.

  7. I suspect it’s onomatopoetic; bird names tend to be.

  8. I’m most familiar with the Chukar Cherry company from Eastern Washington. Great products and a charming Chukar partridge on the logo.

  9. its pronounced as Chuk oar….

  10. I’m coming from the birder’s end of this discussion. We have Chukar in our California high desert to which they were introduced in order to be hunted. The bird name is most likely – whatever the etymological chain – onomatopoetic for their call. I’ve heard them and it’s a reasonably good imitation. Then there’s polo, with its many tales of using the heads of your enemies instead of a ball, supposedly done thousands to hundreds of years ago. And then there are the polo periods of play, called chukkers or chukkas. I can’t help but think there’s some sort of connection. As Chukar the bird are native to the Indian-central Asia polo-playing areas, perhaps they used to hunt (or play-hunt) Chukar the bird from horseback, whacking them with poles or poles with knobs on the end or swords or spears. They’re probably quite tasty, as is any quail or partridge. “Let’s go out for a ride, we’ll beat the bushes for Chukar.” evolves into “playing a Chukka.” What do you think? Too fanciful? I’m actually sincere about this, as absurd as it might seem. Visit my blogsite below. You’ll see a Chukar prominently displayed.

  11. Rodger C says

    I thought chukker was from the Urdu for ‘wheel’, hence a round of a game. Same word as chakra.

  12. That’s the other one — see the third link in the post.

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