Another quote from Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds:

The koukou, the Morepork owl, hoots koukou.
It lives by night, it belongs to the Underworld,
its frightening eyes a sign of evil.
A thin film covers its unblinking eyes,
a thin film made from the fingernails of corpses.

I was, of course, intrigued by “Morepork,” so I looked it up; it’s in the Australian Oxford Dictionary and the (old) OED under “mopoke,” but in Wikipedia under Morepork, so perhaps that’s the more accepted form these days. The Australian dictionary defines it as “boobook” (another great word!), which it says is from Dharuk bug bug. I will be glad of any further information (if someone with access to the online OED can provide the current etymology, I’d be glad); I will note that the last line of the Weinberger quote reminded me of Naglfar (see this 2005 post).


  1. Trond Engen says

    Morepork and boobook could be representations of the same word.

  2. Morepork is the usual (universal?) spelling in NZ — I’ve not seen it spelled mopoke.

    I vividly remember coming nose-to-beak with one standing on a treee stump at dusk outside the Boyle Hut on the St James Walkway

  3. Dammit, I thought that second link was going to be a photo of you coming nose-to-beak with one.

  4. Was the name of the great city of Discworld (which began mostly as a parody of Lankhmar) a reference to this?

  5. Wikipedia has two entries relevant to morepork/mopoke: one under the heading “Morepork” (describing Ninox novaeseelandiae, native to New Zealand and Tasmania), and the other under “Southern boobook” (Ninox boobook, native to mainland Australia, New Guinea, and the Sunda Islands). The latter entry cites “mopoke” (but not “morepork”) as an alternative name. Apparently they were only recognised as separate species in 1999.

    Growing up in New South Wales, I learned the name of the bird as “mopoke” (although I heard “morepork” occasionally). I would guess that the names are equivalent, and the choice of mopoke/morepork reflects regional dialectical variation.

  6. At your service. The OED3 (2002) says:

    Etymology: Imitative of the boobook owl’s usual call. Compare pork int.

    The early Australian evidence suggests that morepork was the original form, but that, perhaps under the influence of mope v., the form mopoke (see mopoke n.) soon emerged (compare poke n.1, apparently used as the second element in a number of regional bird names; the early variant mopehawk, influenced by hawk, perhaps represents an intermediate step). Morepork is attested in New Zealand from the 1840s, where it has remained the usual spelling, although mopoke is also occasionally attested there. Both forms continued in use in Australia until the mid 20th cent., but since then the prevailing form in Australian use has been mopoke.

    The word boobook is also said to be imitative by the OED, but here we are dealing with the OED2. In any case, if it is borrowed from an Australian language, it is probably imitative there as well: the difference between /ˈmɔpɔk/ and /ˈbubuk/ is not huge.

    Morepork is defined by the OED in addition to its primary use for the owl as ‘stupid or tiresome person’ in AusE and ‘dawdler, slowcoach; stay-at-home’ in NZE.

  7. Brett, I found this:

    Terry has said that the name ‘Ankh-Morpork’ was inspired neither by the ankh (the Egyptian cross with the closed loop on top), nor by the Australian or New Zealand species of bird (frogmouths and small owls, respectively) that go by the name of ‘Morepork’.
    Since I first wrote down the above annotation, there have been new developments, however. In The Streets of Ankh-Morpork and The Discworld Companion we are shown an illustration of the Ankh-Morpork coat of arms, which does feature a Morepork/owl holding an ankh. But from Terry’s remarks (see next annotation) I feel it is safe to say that neither bird nor cross were explicitly on his mind when he first came up with the name Ankh-Morpork.

  8. AND2 does not improve on the OED for “morepork” (first citation 1825, first citation as insult 1845), although it does include a separate sense for the verb form: “(Of a mopoke) to call; (of a person) to imitate the call of a mopoke.”

    1915 Bulletin (Sydney) 4 Mar. 14/4 The ardent Billjim… imitates the call of the mopoke to announce that he has arrived… I mopoked under a big peach tree.

    Also quotes Tim Winton’s “boobook nights, cool, mopoking winter nights” from Dirt Music.

    However, AND2 is a little more helpful on “boobook”:

    (Spelling variants: (formerly) bok bok, buck buck) (Also boobook owl) [From Sydney language bug-bug or bubug, an imitative name.] […]

    c. 1790 W. Dawes Grammatical Forms Lang. N.S.W.</cite. (MS, School of Oriental & African Studies Lib., London, MS 41645), Bōk bō, an owl.

    (That’s about a decade earlier than the next citation, from Latham 1801, which the OED also has.)

    “Sydney language” is another term for Dharuk/Dharug, and you can find Jakelin Troy’s monograph on it here. Under “Birds” about halfway down (no page numbers) you can find these forms for the boobook owl:

    bubuk b$$okb$ok (b), po-book (C), pow-book (A), boobook (W)

    “bubuk” is Troy’s standardized reconstruction, and the rest are as recorded in various sources. (The dollar signs appear to be mojibake interpretable as “the following letter has a macron over it.” Not sure about the double dollar sign as it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else in the document!)

    There’s also “po-buck” under “Australian owlet night-jar,” although…

    Calaby (1989:72) observed that this was probably a mistake by John Hunter who might have confused the nightjar with another nocturnal bird the boobook owl. The call of the night-jar does not resemble ‘po-buck’

    Also, from above:

    Morepork and boobook could be representations of the same word.

    Definitely the same birdcall, but probably not the same human word. The phonotactics of Australian language certainly allow for b/p variation (in the ears of English speakers), but most sources seem to have been fairly good at distinguishing between initial /b/ and initial /m/. (Troy does mention a couple of suffixes whose initial consonant is /b/ or “allophonic variant” /m/, but…)

  9. Having lived for fifteen years above a small valley inhabited by a morepork or two (but probably only one: the well known call is thought to be a territorial declaration), I can confirm that the name is strongly onomatopoeic.

    Never heard morepork for ‘dawdler, slowcoach; stay-at-home’ – that may be specialized argot, or obsolete.


    It doesn’t sound to me like “morepork”.

    More like “huhuh”

  11. Are you sure that’s not the hoho bird?

    Ok, it’s all pretty subjective. I’m not claiming an owl can do a bilabial nasal and voiceless stop consonants. In defence of “morepork” as onomatopoeia: location matters. A drawn-out birdcall at night, echoing out of forest, has timbres that the intimacy of listening to an electronic recording won’t reproduce. The latter’s like watching a cinemascope movie on YouTube, on a laptop screen: it’s sort of the same experience as in a movie theatre, and yet it’s not the same experience at all. “Morepork” strikes me, even allowing for the power of suggestion, as a reasonably good rendering of the unrenderable.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Hat: Dammit, I thought that second link was going to be a photo of you coming nose-to-beak with one.

    Since I didn’t link to anything, was this a response to a comment in moderation? But if I ever get a photo of me and an owl I’ll promise to post it,

  13. David Marjanović says

    Mopehawk is a work of genius.

    (…especially now that it turns out the hawks are closer to the owls than to the falcons.)

  14. I heard one just last night walking home. I think the reason the call could be said to sound like morepork is that the intonation, the pitch is similar, the first note slightly rising, the second slightly falling.

    The Māori name ruru is generally used these days more than koukou, but LH readers will enjoy this:

  15. That is quite delightful. A brief excerpt to whet the appetite:

    The Whanganui folk informed me that, in former times, their forebears would sometimes procure a number of these owls and preserve them as huahua. Such birds would not be mixed with other species, but preserved in a separate vessel. Any person presenting such a vessel of potted moreporks to an assembly of guests would, at the same time, chant a song that commenced with the words: He ruru taku nei– (My gift is one of owls).

  16. a song that commenced with the words: He ruru taku nei– (My gift is one of owls).

    And if I didn’t already have a perfectly good family motto, that would now be it.

  17. @Stephen J, thank you.

    Yes the Māori names for birds are often evocative. The first time I came across a Whio (Blue Duck) it was pitch black before dawn. Couldn’t see a thing, but it sure cried Whio. (Again outside a Tramping Hut, this time on the Leslie-Karamea circuit; again no photo to post.)

  18. Bathrobe says

    The Mopoke
    by Rex Ingamells (1935)

    When Night was come upon the bush
    With stars and mounting moon,
    And magpies drowsed aloft in leaves,
    Forgetting their glad tune;
    Then some nocturnal spirit spoke,
    Echoing clear and far:
    Clear and far and oft:
    “M-o-p-o-k!” . . . . “M-o-p-o-k-!”

    Rex Ingamells was a leading figure in the Jindyworobak movement. To quote Wikipedia:

    The Jindyworobak Movement was an Australian literary movement of the 1930s and 1940s whose white members, mostly poets, sought to contribute to a uniquely Australian culture through the integration of Indigenous Australian subjects, language and mythology. The movement’s stated aim was to “free Australian art from whatever alien influences trammel it” and create works based on an engagement with the Australian landscape and an “understanding of Australia’s history and traditions, primeval, colonial and modern”.

  19. Bathrobe says

    This is the kind of stuff we were fed at school.

    HIST! by C. J. Dennis

    Hist! . . . . . . Hark!
    The night is very dark,
    And we’ve to go a mile or so
    Across the Possum Park.

    Step . . . . . . light,
    Keeping to the right;
    If we delay, and lose our way,
    We’ll be out half the night.
    The clouds are low and gloomy. Oh!
    It’s just begun to mist!
    We haven’t any overcoats
    And – Hist! . . . . . . Hist!

    (Mo . . . . . . poke!)
    Who was that that spoke?
    This is not a fitting spot
    To make a silly joke.

    Dear . . . . . . me!
    A mopoke in a tree!
    It jarred me so, I didn’t know
    Whatever it could be.
    But come along; creep along;
    Soon we shall be missed.
    They’ll get a scare and wonder where
    We – Hush! . . . . . . Hist!

    Ssh! . . . . . . Soft!
    I’ve told you oft and oft
    We should not stray so far away
    Without a moon aloft.

    Oo! . . . . . . Scat!
    Goodness! What was that?
    Upon my word, it’s quite absurd,
    It’s only just a cat.
    But come along; haste along;
    Soon we’ll have to rush,
    Or we’ll be late and find the gate
    Is – Hist! . . . . . . Hush!

    (Kok!. . . . . . Korrock!)
    Oh! I’ve had a shock!
    I hope and trust it’s only just
    A frog behind a rock.

    Shoo! . . . . . . Shoo!
    We’ve had enough of you;
    Scaring folk just for a joke
    Is not the thing to do.
    But come along, slip along –
    Isn’t it a lark
    Just to roam so far from home
    On – Hist! . . . . . . Hark!

    Look! . . . . . . See!
    Shining through the tree,
    The window-light is glowing bright
    To welcome you and me.

    Shout! . . . . . . Shout!
    There’s someone round about,
    And through the door I see some more
    And supper all laid out.
    Now, run! Run! Run!
    Oh, we’ve had such splendid fun –
    Through the park in the dark,
    As brave as anyone.

    Laughed, we did, and chaffed, we did,
    And whistled all the way,
    And we’re home again! Home again!
    Hip . . . . . . Hooray!

  20. Kevin Gillam, “the furniture of thought,” 2008:

    I walk through the dimness of our childhood rooms
      and I touch nothing. I walk and I’m nine and

      in bed watching the model Spitfire climb then
    spiral earthward. I walk and the smell of the rug

        in the sleepout takes me to days of rain and
      plastic soldiers, nights when louvres slivered the

      mopoke’s call. I walk, shifting only the furniture
          of thought […]

    (Found in the recently published Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry)

  21. This is the kind of stuff we were fed at school.

    I enjoyed it greatly, and will have to keep in mind “Goodness! What was that?/ Upon my word, it’s quite absurd,/ It’s only just a cat” for use around the house.

  22. Bathrobe says

    The only line that I remembered before posting the poem was “Mo…..poke! Who was that that spoke!”, which, coming from kids, sounded more petulant than dramatic.

  23. You might want to find the Anna Kavan short story, “Glorious Boys”; the 20th century author uses the morepork as an omen and explores native New Zealand superstition surrounding their presence and call.

  24. I’ve only read Ice as best I recall, but based on that Anna Kavan was an amazing writer. (From the Wikipedia article: “Kavan’s reception as a ’woman writer’ has been complicated by her perceived lack of attention to gender politics.” Sigh.)

  25. She lived in Campden Hill at 99 Peel Street, one block from my primary school, in a beautiful house by the Windsor Castle pub and at the other end of the street from Lucian Freud, around the corner in Church Street.

  26. I noticed, a couple of days ago, that “morepork” was the Wiktionary Word of the Day, but I neglected to follow up and mention it here at the time.

    It is perhaps fitting that the word also means “slowpoke”.

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