The Grammarphobia Blog

Words of passage

Q: Why was Ectopistes migratorius called a “passenger pigeon”? Was the “passenger” a message like those carried by homing pigeons?

A: No, the word “passenger” here has nothing to do with carrying messages. It’s an old term (originally spelled “passager”) for a migratory bird—that is, a bird of passage.

English adapted the word “passenger” in the 1300s from passager and several similar “n”-less terms in Anglo-Norman and Middle French for a ferry, a ferryman, or a passenger on a ferry or other vessel.

Why an “n” in the English version of the word? The Oxford English Dictionary explains that it’s an example of “the development of an intrusive n before g found chiefly in loanwords from the late Middle English period onwards.”

The OED cites several similar words of French origin, including “messenger” and “harbinger,” in which an “n” was inserted during the Middle English period (from the late 12th to the late 15th centuries).

From the 1300s to the 1500s, the English term “passenger” developed several senses: a pilot of a ferry, a ferry or ship that carries passengers, a passenger, and a traveler.

In the late 1500s, “passenger” came to mean a migratory bird. The earliest OED citation for this usage, minus the “n,” is from Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives:

“Which hathe geuen some occasion to holde … that the vulters are passagers, and come into these partes out of straunge countryes.”

The intrusive “n” shows up in the next OED citation, from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by John Smith:

“Sometimes are also seene Falcons … but because they come seldome, they are held but as passengers.”

The OED says the use of the word “passenger” in the migratory sense is now obsolete, but the usage lives on in the terms “bird of passage” and “passenger pigeon.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “bird of passage” used to mean a migratory bird is from a 1717 entry in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

In the citation, flamingos are said to “sometimes visit us here in Europe, and so may be accounted amongst the Migratory Kind, or Birds of Passage.”

Oxford suggests that the use of “bird of passage” in this sense may have been influenced by the Middle French term oiseau de passage, which dates from 1549.

The dictionary’s first citation for “passenger pigeon” is from a 1772 entry in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “Passenger Pigeon, Faun. Am. Sept. 11. Severn River, No 63.”

The term “passenger pigeon” is defined in the OED as “a long-tailed North American pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, noted for its former abundance, rapid and sustained flight, and mass migrations.”

The dictionary adds that the passenger pigeon (once commonly known as the wild pigeon) “was relentlessly hunted to extinction, the last individual dying in captivity in 1914.”

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