I’m still working my way through the Jan. 22 New Yorker, and I just finished “Digging for Dodos,” by Ian Parker (not online). It’s fairly interesting (though presumably more so if you care more than I do about dodos), but the linguistically significant bit was this, from p. 66:

On later visits, the Dutch came to refer to the birds as dodaersen—fat-asses. In English, “dodo” was in use by the sixteen-twenties, perhaps through a simple process of linguistic evolution; but [Julian] Hume [a British paleontologist and dodo authority] likes the idea that the coinage was inspired, or at least reinforced, by the bird’s call.

I have two problems with this. In the first place, dood does not mean ‘fat’ in Dutch, it means ‘dead’ or ‘death’ (‘fat’ is dik or vet). More importantly, every other etymology I’ve seen for dodo (for example, Merriam-Webster’s) derives it from Portuguese doudo ‘silly, stupid.’ My default assumption here is that the author listened to somebody who didn’t know what he was talking about (presumably one of the Dutch scientists he traveled around with) and that the magazine, as sadly often these days, fell down on fact-checking, but if anyone knows differently, please speak up.


  1. Again, no fact checking, but it sounds a lot like several trips back and forth though a translation engine. I.e. Dodo to stupid to fat-assed.

  2. Or Parker just perused the wikipedia entry on dodo.
    This rather interesting site suggests several etymologies of the name dodo. According to one theory, “dodaersen” could be intepreted as “croupe dodue”, i.e. “chubby back”(?).
    In any case, the “fat arse” etymology seems to be quite popular.

  3. joeri samson says

    According to WNT dodaars, dodo and walgvogel are indeed all names for the dodo.
    The explanation given on wikipedia seems correct.
    For dodo it says it is of unknown origin, but the EWN (etymological dictionary of the dutch language) says it comes from the portugese dodó, which it explains either as coming from the portugese doudo or as an abbrevation of dodaars.
    Dodaars according to the WNT (and the EWN) comes from the tuft (knot?) of feathers on the arse that these birds apparantly have.

  4. According to WNT online, dodaars derives from dot+aars, dot apparently being a lump of fibres/threads, a knot of hair or a small knot. That would certainly fit, but still, nothing about “fat arse”.

  5. Andrew Dunbar says

    What about the origin of Finnish drontti, German Dronte, and Russian дронт?

  6. Siganus Sutor says

    God! for all these years I have been thinking that dodo meant sleep — eternal sleep in the case of our national bird.
    Now, ô tristesse, this belief of mine will be as dead as the dodo.

  7. Andrew: the Grimms say:
    n. dudu, walgvogel, tölpel, didus ineptus, mönchsschwan, ist dumm und träge, niederl. dronte, schwed. dän. dronten NEMNICH 1, 1412. Wörterb. 115.
    The WNT says of the Dutch:
    znw. vr. Van onbekenden oorsprong.
    which if I scrunch my eyes together says ‚von unbekannten Ursprung‘ ‘of unknown origin’ to me. Given that the WNT is the biggest etymological dictionary out there, that almost certainly means that no-one knows.

  8. (And, oops, didn’t mean to slight joeri with that! I don’t have a licence to access the EWN and haven’t registered for the trial period.)

  9. For dronte the Trésor de la langue française informatisé says “Le mot est prob. un emprunt à un parler d’une région voisine de l’île Maurice.” Which is to say, who knows?

  10. I had the same question reading that story and found this: There is a waterfowl in Holland that’s still called doodaars: Tachybaptus ruficollis (called little grebe in English, a kind of duck). I suspect the visitors to Mauritius just borrowed the name of one of their birds back home and applied it to the dodo (if the link from “dodaers” to “dodo” is even real).

  11. Siganus Sutor says

    Which is to say, who knows?
    Antarctica maybe?

  12. Siganus Sutor says

    Let’s try to be (a little bit) serious for a (short) while…
    For dronte the Petit Robert says that it — the word — comes from un parler de l’océan Indien, par le hollandais. In the Western Indian Ocean, I see just one place where an (almost) indigenous population spoke its own language: Madagascar. However, even though there are some malgache words in Mauritius (mostly to describe animals and plants), it seems quite unlikely — at least to me — that dronte could be of Madagascan origin. But who knows…
    From Indonesia, or Sri Lanka? It looks a bit far to be “regional”, as specified by the Trésor.
    The dronte mystery goes on?
    (Incidentally, it is pretty amazing to see how much dictionaries can be loose in the “information” they provide.)

  13. A nit: The grebe is a water bird, but not a duck. They’re great divers and have quite a dramatic mating dance.

  14. I definitely have worries forgiving a guy for bad things they did to you.

  15. Siganus Sutor says

    every other etymology I’ve seen for dodo (for example, Merriam-Webster’s) derives it from Portuguese doudo ‘silly, stupid.’
    Something makes me somehow uneasy regarding this etymology. All right, the first Europeans to see a dodo were almost certainly the Portuguese, when they landed in Mauritius during the first decade of the sixteenth century. But they named the island Ilha do Cirne, Swan Island. Since there was/is no species of swan on this island, it has been assumed that it was the name they gave to the large unknown bird they discovered there. Had they decided to dub this new species doudo, there would have more likely been an Ilha do Doudo in place of the ugly duckling, no? Am I a dodo if say this?

  16. Siganus Sutor says

    “Am I a dodo if I say this?”
    Yes, I certainly am, even if I wasn’t one of the characters in Le Bal du dodo

  17. joerisamson says

    Aidan Kehoe: If you have access to the WNT it actually provides a link to both the EWN and the EWA, I had to do nothing special to get there

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    Re: Cirne being the name given by the Portuguese to the then unknown dodo. — While some authors have made such an hypothesis, others have had another, more… er… down-to-earth, likelier explanation, e.g. J. Addinson & K. Hazareesingh (A New History of Mauritius, 1984): “Fernandez Pereira sighted Mauritius in 1507 and gave it the name of his ship, Cerne.”
    Now, back to the word dronte… Larousse (Grand dictionnaire en 5 volumes) has this: “dronte n. m. (néerlandais dronte, d’un mot mauricien).”
    That’s excellent! So if I have it right, according to these guys the Dutch borrowed the word from the Mauritians. One cannot but wonder who these Ma˚r˚tians were at that time (i.e. which species they belonged to). And where they came from (i.e. which planet they travelled from). What a wonderland!

  19. C’est marrant!

  20. A Dutch birding site ( says (of the Little Grebe]: “De naam Dodaars heeft te maken met de gelijkenis van het stuitje met een uitgebloeide Lisdodde – de rietsigaren langs de waterkant.” Which means: the name dodaars has to do with the similarity of the [bird’s]tailfeathers with the Lisdodde when it has finished blooming — the ‘reed cigars’ along the water’s edge.” Lisdodde/reed cigars are cattails in English (typha latifolia and other species of typha). Their cigar-shaped seed heads eventually open up and release large fluffy seeds. The WNT says lisdodde (formerly lischdodde), derives from lis, formerly lisch, name for the wild iris (as in ‘fleurs de lis’, and dodde, deriving from the stem “dot”, referring to a small fibrous mass, like a clump of hair. It adds, “in the working of flax, ‘dotten’ are the rougher parts that are left over after the threshing of the ‘lokken'” (the locks, or softest portions). So, dodaars means, in effect, “fluffy rear end”, not fat-ass.

  21. That sounds much nicer!

  22. i am reminded of the french tongue-twister: “Dido dina, dit-on, du dos dodu d’un dodu dindon” — “(queen) Dido dined, it is said, on the fat back of a fat turkey.” where french got “dodu” from i wouldn’t know.
    incidentally, the word for stupid in modern brazilian portuguese is “doido,” not “doudo.” i cannot imagine why.

  23. I think that in Portuguese ou –> oi is pretty common.

  24. God! for all these years I have been thinking that dodo meant sleep — eternal sleep in the case of our national bird.
    That would now be your merely notional bird, would it not, Sartor? As for dodo meaning sleep, we should put it clearly on record that it does. But that is a word of a different feather (• XVe; onomat., de dormir ¨ Lang. enfantin, 1¨ Sommeil. Faire dodo : dormir. …
    says Petit Robert).
    Now I am trying to think up a joke using dodo (1), dodo (2), dodeliner, nation, notion, nutation, and natation – but it eludes me. Tant pis.

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    C’est marrantCimarrón as well? Gone astray…
    Yes, Language Hat, it’s quite funny. How can “serious people” write that, though? Don’t they think twice before printing such nonsense in such a book?
    Even if it is not as bad, dodo-wise (if you will allow me to use this construction here) the Merriam-Webster seems to have gone a bit cuckoo too. Here’s what they say at the dodo entry you linked to:
    1. b : an extinct flightless bird (Raphus solitarius) of the island of Réunion similar to and closely related to the dodo”.
    It’s true that in the past this large solitary bird was thought to be part of the didines group, and therefore related to the Mauritian dodo and the Rodriguan (-guese?) solitaire. But, as it turned out, it was a type of ibis instead, the error coming more from linguistic confusion than from zoological misconceptions: as it was a lonely animal like its counterpart living on Rodrigues/z, they both ended up sharing the same name, thus making people believe they were from the same group — it would somehow be like putting Siberian and Tasmanian tigers in the same family just because the are both called ‘tigers’. (David Marjanović would probably have more to say about all this.)
    The only dodo that ever existed in Reunion is still alive and kicking — la Dodo lé* la ! —, since it is the nickname given to the most popular beer on the island. So if the M-W desperately wants to have something to replace its ibis at 1.b….
    * Noticea will notice that the verb “to be” does exist in Reunionese creole

  26. David Marjanović says

    which if I scrunch my eyes together says ‚von unbekannte[m] Ursprung‘ ‘of unknown origin’ to me.

    Congratulations! You have discovered the method for how to read Dutch! :o)
    Yes, grebes are far from ducks, their closest relatives actually seem to be the flamingos; and yes, the dodo and the solitaire actually are each other’s closest relatives (within the “toothed” pigeons) — there’s now even DNA evidence for that hypothesis.

  27. I just finished “Digging for Dodos,” by Ian Parker (not online)

    It’s online now:

    Which allowed me to spot another “linguistically significant bit” in the 17th paragraph, about the name of the swamp where the dodo bones were found: “The area was known as the Mare aux Songes, which is sometimes translated, wistfully, as the Sea of Dreams but is more likely named for the starchy tropical root known in Mauritian French as songe.”

    Ian Parker could have known that une mare, even if it somehow looks and sounds like une mer, isn’t really a sea, but a pond. But what is more interesting is the word songe, indeed dream in French (cf “Le songe d’une nuit d’été”, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). If one thinks for instance of Hugo Pratt’s lagune aux beaux songes, the marshy place full of mosquitoes causing delirious fevers to (European) human beings foolish enough to stay there, Mare aux Songes could have been the day-dreaming place its name suggests. However, as the author points out, there is also the homophonous songe, the local name for the tuber elsewhere known as taro, a word derived from Madagascan saonjo, which has nothing to do with dreams as far as I know. These plants tend to grow in water, but ultimately who knows whether the pond has been named after them or because it was a dreamy place.


    Coming back to the dodo, Pravina Nallatamby, “ doctor in language sciences”, mentions Dutch “dodarse, ‘gros derrière’”, but I wonder how much she really knows about this.

    The WNT Dutch dictionary seems to mention both Portuguese and Dutch origins in its definition:

    [1646; WNT dodaars], Dodo [1853; WNT].
    Ontleend aan Portugees dodó ‘id.’, maar de verdere herkomst is niet helemaal zeker. Wrsch. een verkorte vorm van een woord dat ontleend werd aan een ouder Nederlands dodaars, afgeleid vandod (een variant van dot) en aars, vanwege de opvallende pluk veren die de vogel aan de achterkant had (nu duidt deze naam een andere vogel aan, de Tachybaptus ruficollis). Een andere opvatting is dat Portugees dodó afgeleid is van het bn. doudo (modern Portugees doido) ‘dom, mal’ [16e eeuw; da Cunha], dat misschien uit Engels dolt ‘dom’ [16e eeuw; ShOED], een vorm vandulled ‘versuft’ (zie dol) komt.

    But deciphering Dutch is mission impossible as far as I am concerned, alas.



    PS — If that might be of any interest, the Grand Larousse mentioned above (on 14 Feb 2007 at 3 minutes past midnight) only cites Portuguese doido, stupid, crazy. We’re not out of the woods, or the pond, and we would definitely need a dodologist to shed some light on the mystery of the dodo’s name.

  28. Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    I just finished “Digging for Dodos

    Some extra digging might be needed…

  29. It’s online now

    Through the summer, anyway; come fall they’re going to put everything behind a paywall (similar to the NY Times‘s). But I encourage everyone who enjoys the magazine to explore it until then — I believe everything since 2007 is online free.

    And of course thanks for the soigneux research you have done on the (Cauche)mar(e) aux Songes!

  30. [T]he Merriam-Webster seems to have gone a bit cuckoo too. Here’s what they say at the dodo entry you linked to:

    “1. b : an extinct flightless bird (Raphus solitarius) of the island of Réunion similar to and closely related to the dodo”.

    Well, if we remove the words “and closely related to”, the dictionary definition is correct, in the sense that people have applied the word dodo to this creature (now known as Threskiornis solitarius). It’s characteristic of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries that they extract definitions of technical terms from usage where possible, rather than only giving the “correct” sense. For example, while mahogany is properly the wood of Swietenia macrophylla, the definition says “a strong reddish-brown wood that is used especially for making furniture and that comes from several tropical trees”, reflecting the undoubted fact that people use mahogany for wood from many sources. Specific trees are only mentioned in the “full definition” quoted from MWNID3.

  31. marie-lucie says

    bulbul: “dodaersen” could be intepreted as “croupe dodue”, i.e. “chubby back”(?).

    La croupe is not the back, more the ‘backside’, most specifically a horse’s “cruppers” or (in times and places with different standards of female beauty) the corresponding part of a well-padded woman’s anatomy. About the adjective dodu, the TLFI relates it to a stem meaning ‘to sway, rock’ (as in ‘rock the cradle’), hence ‘well cared for, well fed, chubby’, etc. Personally; I would use it only of meat animals at their peak of edibility, with fat but firm flesh.

    pd: I know the tongue twister as Didon dîna, dit-on, du dos d’un dodu dindon. In France le dindon is a male turkey, the generic term being la dinde.

  32. “Le singe qui ne chantait pas”. You don’t need much French to understand this jewel from 2008; it’s mostly in English.

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