Four calling birds


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Four calling birds, three French hens,

Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Photo by Francis C Franklin

Do you know what calling birds are? It’s not exactly a recognised species – the original rhyme apparently included “colly birds”. Colly was another word for black – coal-ey? – and the origin of the sheepdog name also.

It’s a lost word, really, and Shakespeare has an abundance of them. I don’t just mean words like Honorificabilitudinitatibus (can it be lost when no-one has noticed its absence? Even Shakespeare only used it once…). Or even those commonplace dosts and hasts and thous which make reading Shakespeare such hard going. I mean the slang that lends so much sauce to his language.

There’s a whole host of dirty euphemisms (the RSC has helpfully collated many of them here) that makes you think we really lost something when we started using the actual nouns. And plenty of insults (you can get a set from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) although “thou crusty batch of nature” sounds more like a bakery than abuse these days.

Here are a few of the words I’ll be trying to bring back into fashion in 2016:

  • Bed-presser – someone lazy
  • Fancy-monger – pimp (literally, someone who sells love)
  • “I’ll tickle your catastrophe” – I’ll enjoy your downfall
  • Avaunt – piss off, basically
  • Bosky – covered in undergrowth
  • Hurtling – noisy
  • Incarnadine – to die red

13 thoughts on “Four calling birds

  1. westville13

    “To dye red” surely? Though plenty of dying also went on in the Scottish play. Thank you for the RSC euphemisms list – some good ones in As You Like It (including the title?). c.f Much Ado About Nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It gives a different slant to the plays, doesn’t it? You can imagine original performances accompanied with gales of saucy laughter where today there might be revered silence because those references are lost on a modern audience. Ah, for a time machine to see it all first hand! Hope you had a great Christmas and have a great New Year 🙂


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