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Old School Names for British Species

#1 Warty Newt (Great Crested Newt)

Great crested newt | The Wildlife Trusts

An old school name for the great crested newt is the warty newt. For example, you can see this name in early works by Malcolm Arthur Smith from the 30’s. This name makes much more sense than ‘great crested’ newt as the most common newt in the UK (smooth newt) also has a crest – leading to confusion (not ideal when one species is so heavily protected and the other is not!). Additionally, you cannot really see the crest when the newt is on land!

The warts are, in fact, small glands which secrete cytotoxic poison, for predator avoidance. Don’t worry though, this won’t affect humans unless you try and eat them, which will probably result in a bitter taste! Actually, when held in the hand, many ecologists will claim that great crested newts actually smell like raw potatoes…

#2 Lady’s-Shmock (Cuckooflower)

Cuckooflower or Lady's Smock - Cardamine Pratensis -60 Seeds- Damp-Loving  Flower | eBay

The commonly found cuckooflower (look for it in parks and meadows near rivers or ponds) has another old timey name; the Lady’s-shmock. Probably in reference to a typical shmock worn by the women of yesteryear. The plant flowers in the spring – around about the same time cuckoos arrive in the UK.

American Art of the Week: The Milkmaid by Winslow Homer – A Scholarly Skater
A Shmock worn in: The Milkmaid by Winslow Homer

Our man, Shakespeare (who also probably knew the more commonly used name of ‘cuckooflower’ – which was also used in the 16th century) used the plant as a crude device in a rather naughty song from his play, Love’s Labour’s Lost:

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he: 
“Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

– Shakespeare

In this passage (about cheating wives) Shakespeare is probably cheekily using lady-smocks. In Shakespeare’s time ‘smock’ was slang for woman – in the same vein as ‘skirt’ would be used today, by likely lads. Additionally, repeating the word cuckoo is harkening to the word cuckhold.

Reading the annotated Shakespeare, the preface often contains a passage along the lines of: we have to assume that the audience of Shakespeare’s plays had a good understanding of language and characterization…etc. I wonder how many people today would be able to correctly identify and link the arrival of a cuckoos, to the springing of the Lady’s-shmoch.

#3 Reremouse (all Bats!)

Reremouse - Small winged mammals, these flying rodents are thought to be  distantly related to primitive … | Medieval art, Medieval paintings,  Illuminated manuscript

The Reremouse (‘rear-mouse’) is often used in reference to depictions of bats in heraldry. But was also used to refer to all bats. The term comes from rear – as in to move around and shake – and mouse. That is an OK description of most bats in the UK. However, technically humans are more closely related to mice (genetically) than bats are!

‘Some war with reremice for their leathern wings
To make my small elves coats, and some keep back’

– Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 2, Line 5).

Despite the term often used in reference to a heraldry, bats hardly ever feature on European coat of arms.

Brecknockshire - Coat of arms (crest) of Brecknockshire
Coat of arms of Historic county of Welsh Brecknockshire

Possibly the only depiction of bats on a coat of arms in UK history is the above. Bats are an unusual symbol in heraldry. In medieval Europe, bats were often associated with the darker side of superstitions, as they still are today in pop culture (and housing developments!). Perhaps the above symbol, adapted from a 5th century king, Brychan, had it roots in paganism (despite Brychan being Christian).

#4 Bandit Faced Bat (Common pipistrelle)

Common and Soprano pipistrelles - People's Trust for Endangered Species

The bandit pipistrelle is the old school and much cooler name for a common pipistrelle. Bat workers in the early 90s, and prior, would refer to pipistrelles in the UK as one species, with two colour morphs – bandits and browns. This was in reference to some of the pipistrelles to have a black-ish bandit-like face; and others having a lighter brown face. The above photo is an example of what would have been referred to as a bandit pipistrelle.

However, we now know that these bandits and browns are in fact, two separate species. In the early 90s when genetic sequencing became a scientific tool, these bandits and browns were confirmed to be two completely separate species. This came hot off the heels of newer echolocation devices which identified that the browns had a higher echolocation frequency, of around 55 KHz, compared the the bandits; which were around 45 KHz.

Soprano Pipistrelle – A guide to Irelands protected habitats & species
A soprano pipistrelle – which used to be referred to as a brown – calls at a higher pitched frequency that a common pipistrelle.

Just to be clear the morphological differences aren’t always as straight forward as they seem in the above two photos, often you will get a darker faced soprano pipistrelle, and vice versa. These days you don’t hear people calling them ‘bandits’ and ‘browns’ apart from when you are learning to ID them in the hand. When being held, soprano’s also have a reputation for being musty smelling, and more aggressive!

Given the current politics around housing permission, calling the most common bat found in UK houses a ‘bandit bat’ might not be a great idea after all. Some other old school names for British bats include red armed bat, for the Natterer’s and Hairy-armed bat for Leisler’s.

#5 Charlie (Red Fox)

FoxHunting Evidence UK – Ban Foxhunting in the UK

Calling our native fox (the red fox) Charlie, is common vernacular within hunting fraternity. But why? The nickname Charlie has its roots in 18th century political banter. Charismatic Liberal Whig politician, Charles James Fox, was a nemesis to the Tory party of the 18th century – headed most famously by the UKs youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger.

Charles James Fox was often depicted as a fox in political cartoons, obviously due to his name – but also due to his wit and cunning. However, the Tory’s of the time would refer to a fox as ‘Charlie’ during hunts for a bit of political banter; a phrase which is still in use today.

(From wiki) In A Block for the Wigs (1783), caricaturist James Gillray caricatured Charles James Foxe’s return to power in a coalition with Frederick, North, Lord North (George III is the blockhead in the centre).

#6 Hedge Accentor/Foolish Sparrow (Dunnock)

Dunnock - eBird

Dunnocks are those common and small, unassuming, birds which will frequent your bird feeder (old English dun-, brown, + –ock, small: “little brown bird”). They are often overlooked for being rather bland compared to other garden birds, such as the robin. If you ask most people these days, it’s likely they will have never heard of a dunnock. The dunnock has a somewhat more distinguished sounding name of hedge accentor (and even hedge sparrow and hedge chanter despite not being related to a sparrow). I barely ever hear anyone (even birders) refer to the dunnock as a hedge accentor anymore. In some older bird breeding reports I have seen it written as such. Perhaps it is a regional thing; Although even in the RSPB British Birds handbook they are referred to as a dunnock now.

An even older English colloquialism for the dunnock is shufflewing. A brilliantly descriptive name – describing the male courtship dance (see here on YouTube).

Foolish Sparrow? Bit mean! The dunnock has the old colloquialism as foolish sparrow due to being easily fooled by the cuckoo. Cuckoos are well known to lay their eggs in a host birds nest, and it just so happens that dunnocks are easily fooled by the new eggs – probably because they haven’t had the time to evolve behavioural traits to notice that they are being fooled! Modern studies have confirmed this, however, this was a well known phenomena even back in the early 1800s, when Colonel George Montagu (an officer in the army and ornithologist) documented it.

Dunnock nest parasitized by cuckoo. Here you can see the small pale blue dunnock eggs alongside the larger , grey cuckoo egg © JOHN HAWKINS/ FLPA/ MINDEN PICTURES/National
A cuckoo egg with small pale blue dunnock eggs.
© JOHN HAWKINS/ FLPA/ MINDEN PICTURES/National – source

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