The Legacy of Falconry in the English Language


Falconry, that his using birds of prey to hunt for food or for sport, is a very old occupation. Perhaps you have a falconer in your family. If so, they have been responsible for introducing many everyday words and phrases into our language.

Hoodwinked: Falcons are highly strung birds, and so to keep them calm before a hunt falconers put a little leather hood over their head and eyes. This tricked them into thinking it was night. In other words, he "hoodwinked" the falcon.

Hoodwinked Falcon Photo Credit: Max Pixel (http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com), Creative Commons CC0 licence

Fed up: When a falcon has eaten enough food the refuse to hunt any more. Instead they sit around refusing to do anything, since they are "fed up".

Cadge a lift: A cadge is square perch used for carrying birds around ready for the hunt. It's obvious to see how this led to the expression "to cadge a lift".

Codger: The man who carried the cadge around was an old ex-falconer. From cadger, the word evolved into "codger", meaning an old man. A "caddy" who carries golf clubs may also come from the word "cadge".

Haggard: A haggard falcon is one that has been caught in the wild, having learnt to hunt on their own. Having been living in the wild they may not have been is as good condition as the falcons kept in captivity, hence they were a bit scruffy, tired and old, or "haggard". The term "hag" (as in old hag) also has this origin.

Under the thumb: Falcons and other birds of prey have thin strips of leather called jesses attached to the legs of the birds. These are used by the falconer to keep the bird under control when it is on the glove. In order to do this, the falconer threads the jesses under his thumb, stopping the falcon from flying away. In other words, if he us "under the thumb" then he is under control.

Wrapped around your little finger: After putting the jesses under the thumb a tether attached to the bird was wrapped around the little finger for added security. So someone who is "wrapped around your little finger" is someone under your control.

A falcon with jesses under the thumb and tether wrapped around the little finger. Photo Credit: Jenny Joyce, 2015

Callow: This word originally meant "bear" or "bald". However, in falconry it is used to describe a young bird that has not yet got his feathers. We now use the term "callow youth" to describe someone inexperienced.

Boozer: When a bird of prey drinks they are said to be "bowsing". If a bird drinks a lot they are a "boozer". This term has come to be used for a person who drinks a lot of alcohol.

Gorge: The gorge is the throat of a bird. They have an extendable crop which can store food, so it looks like they are eating a large amount. From this we talk about "gorging" on food.

Bated breath: When a bird is tied to their perch they are bated, or restrained. Many say that the phrase "bated breath" comes from when a bird repeatedly tried to fly off when they are bated, and therefore becomes short of breath. They wait with "bated breath" (not baited breath) for the falconer to release them. But since we use the term "bated breath" to indicate that you are almost holding your breath, I think it's more likely that it comes from being restrained, or bated. Either way, the term was first used by Shakespeare in "The Merchant of Venice".

Bated birds Photo Credit: Jenny Joyce, 2015

So if you have an ancestor who was a falconer, you might be unknowingly using phrases they would have used in their everyday work.


Jenny Joyce

About Jenny Joyce

Jenny Joyce is a professional genealogist, lecturer, teacher and writer from Sydney, Australia. She specialises in Australian, English, Irish and Scottish genealogy and has deep interest in DNA in relation to genealogy, palaeography and historical photography. She is the author of the Jennyalogy blog (https://jennyalogy.blogspot.com) and the Jennyalogy Podcast (https://jennyalogypodcast.blogspot.com).

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