Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The word canary gets a decent amount of use in the English language. Not only is it domesticated bird, it’s the name of a shade of yellow and of an island group in the Atlantic. All three of these canaries are linked etymologically, but there’s a fourth link missing here you might not know about: dogs.
In his encyclopedic Natural History, first-century A.D. author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about King Juba of Mauritania exploring the largest of a group of islands off the west coast of Africa. The island was home to a great number of large wild dogs, so he named it Insula Canaria — “Island of Dogs,” from the Latin word for “dog,” canis. (Juba took two of those doggos with him, too, because who doesn’t love a puppy?) Over time, the entire island group took on the name of that largest island (just like Hawaii!); today, they’re called the Canary Islands.
Later visitors to the islands became enchanted by the small yellow-green finches that filled the islands’ air with their song. Through no great feat of etymological contortion, these birds came to be called canary-birds, and eventually just canaries.
By the mid-16th century, after Spain conquered and claimed the Canary Islands, Spanish bird lovers — especially in the monasteries — began breeding canaries on the mainland. It was Italian traders, though, who used selective breeding to produce more marketable domesticated birds, favoring solid brighter colors over the brown- and black-streaked wild canaries. Selective breeding continued for centuries (and continues now) to create canaries in a wide variety of colors.
But the yellow canaries were the most popular by far. By the 19th century, yellow canaries had so become the norm that people started referring to their particular color as canary yellow. In 1941, the world was introduced to its most famous canary to date (a yellow one, of course): Tweety Bird.
With Sylvester the Cat prowling around, Tweety might have been better off living in the land of his ancestors, named for its packs of wild dogs.
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