I’m reading From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe (as is Joel of Far Outliers, who posts some good quotes from the early chapters), and I ran across an intriguing word on page 55: “The cacophony of the monsoon gone, the music of the cold season worked up to a climax in the songs of birds both native and migratory, especially the scarlet minivets and the swallows.” I looked it up in my smaller dictionaries and came up empty; finally the big Webster’s informed me that it was a cuckoo shrike of Asiatic origin, etymology unknown. (They’re colorful little fellows, as you can see here.) The only other dictionary I could find it in was, of course, the OED, whose entry reads in its entirety:

minivet (‘mInIvIt). [Etym. obscure.] Any bird of the campophagine genus Pericrocotus.
1862 Jerdon Birds of India I. 418 The Red Shrikes or Minivets (as Mr. Blyth has called them in the Museum Asiatic Society). 1862 Jerdon Birds of India 425, I have found this Minivet extensively spread throughout India. 187. Cassell’s Nat. Hist. IV. 30 The Grey Minivet (Pericrocotus cinereus). 1880 A. R. Wallace Isl. Life iii. 44 The brilliant little minivets are almost equally universal.

I find it very odd that a word that entered the English language in the mid-19th century has no etymology (an official word, as it were, and not a slang term); I can only surmise that the word is simultaneously obscure and banal-sounding enough that it has not attracted the attention of etymologists. (I assume “Mr. Blyth” is Edward Blyth, among other things curator of the zoological museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal; since he died in 1873, over thirty years before the relevant fascicle of the OED appeared, he wouldn’t have been available for questioning, but he surely didn’t make the word up out of thin air.)

One annoying feature of words like this, rare terms for things that are common in some other part of the world, is that it’s very hard to find out what the translation is in languages where they’re common. My standard example is fenugreek, which is ubiquitous in the cuisines of India and surrounding countries but which, because it’s virtually unknown in English-speaking countries, is not to be found in the English half of bilingual dictionaries. Thanks to the internet, of course, we have the recourse of googling the scientific name (Trigonella foenum-graecum in the case of fenugreek) and hoping something will turn up in the language we want, but that’s not exactly a reliable solution. The trouble is that a truly unabridged bilingual dictionary would cost more than anybody’s willing to pay to create. Ah well.


  1. “I looked it up in my smaller dictionaries and came up empty”
    Is there some reason, Hat, why you don’t just go to the OED straightaway?
    And, more to the point: “smaller dictionaries”? Whatever the hell do you own those for?

  2. I own as many dictionaries as I possibly can. And I like the M-W Collegiate and the American Heritage, so I try to give them a chance to enlighten me before I haul out the big guns. After all, if you only use the OED, how are you ever going to find out how obscure a word is?

  3. While you’re reading about Burma, may I recommend The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh? It’s one of those sprawling historical novels which has been the undoing of many a writer. It’s not his best work — that would be the stunning In an Antique Land, about which I can gush at length, if you like — but it’s not bad. In particular he manages to bring to life some pretty sweeping changes (political, cultural, even ecological) in the colonial and postcolonial periods of one unlucky little country.

  4. Thanks — I like Ghosh’s writing (I’ve got Antique Land), so I’ll look for it.

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