"feathered, warm-blooded vertebrate animal of the class Aves," Old English bird, a rare collateral form of bridd, originally meaning "young bird, nestling" (the usual Old English for "bird" being fugol, for which see fowl (n.)), which is of uncertain origin with no cognates in any other Germanic language. The suggestion that it is related by umlaut to brood and breed is rejected by OED as "quite inadmissible." The metathesis of -r- and -i- was complete 15c. (compare wright).
Despite its early attestation, bridd is not necessarily the oldest form of bird. It is usually assumed that -ir- from -ri- arose by metathesis, but here, too, the Middle English form may go back to an ancient period. [Liberman]
Up to c. 1400 it still often was used in the specific sense "the young of a bird, fledgling, nestling, chick," and of the young of other animals (bees, fish, snakes) and human children. Compare the usual Balto-Slavic words for "bird" (Lithuanian paukštis, Old Church Slavonic pŭtica, Polish ptak, Russian ptica, etc.), said to be ultimately from the same root as Latin pullus "young of an animal."
The proper designation of the feathered creation is in E. fowl, which in course of time was specially applied to the gallinaceous tribe as the most important kind of bird for domestic use, and it was perhaps this appropriation of the word which led to the adoption of the name of the young animal as the general designation of the race. [Hensleigh Wedgwood, "A Dictionary of English Etymology," 1859]
The figurative sense of "secret source of information" is from 1540s. The colloquial meaning "man, fellow, person" is from 1799.
Bird-watching is attested from 1897. Bird's-eye view "the view as seen from above, as if by a bird in flight," is from 1762. Phrase for the birds in reference to anything undesirable is recorded from 1944, supposedly in allusion to birds eating from droppings of horses and cattle. The bird-spider (1800) of the American tropics is a large sort of tarantula that can capture and kill small birds.
A byrde yn honde ys better than three yn the wode. [c. 1530]
The form with bush is attested by 1630s.
"maiden, young girl; woman of noble birth, damsel, lady, lady in waiting," also "the Virgin Mary," c. 1200, perhaps a variant of birth (n.) "birth, lineage," confused with burd and bride (q.q.v.), but felt by later writers as a figurative use of bird (n.1), which originally meant "young bird" and sometimes in Middle English was extended to the young of other animals and humans.
In later Middle English and after, bird (n.2) largely was confined to alliterative poetry and to alliterative phrases. The modern slang meaning "young woman" is from 1915, and probably arose independently of the older word (compare slang use of chick).
"middle finger held up in a rude gesture," slang derived from 1860s expression give the big bird "to hiss someone like a goose," which was kept alive in vaudeville slang with sense of "to greet someone with boos, hisses, and catcalls" (1922), and transferred 1960s to the "up yours" hand gesture (the rigid finger representing the hypothetical object to be inserted) on the common notion of defiance and contempt.
The gesture itself seems to be much older (the human anatomy section of a 12c. Latin bestiary in Cambridge describes the middle finger as that "by means of which the pursuit of dishonour is indicated").
updated on October 10, 2022
Dictionary entries near bird