Q: I’m curious about the use of “stare” in the W. B. Yeats poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” I couldn’t find a meaning on Google that made sense, and my eyes gave out while staring at the tiny print of my compact OED.
A: The word “stare” in Yeats’s poem is an old term for a starling.
In the poem, Yeats calls on the honey bees building a hive in the crumbling masonry of Thoor Ballylee, the ancient tower he owned in County Galway, to build instead in an empty starling’s nest by his window.
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
The noun “stare” here is pronounced the same as the verb “stare.” In the poem, it’s rhymed with “there.”
In Old English, the bird was usually called a staer or a stærlinc, the predecessors of “stare” and “starling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first to appear, “stare,” had two senses: (1) used by itself, it meant simply a starling; (2) accompanied by a descriptive term, it meant a specific species of starling or a bird resembling a starling.
The earliest Oxford citation for the first sense is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, staer” (sturnus is Latin for “starling”). From The Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
The first OED example for the second sense is from an eleventh-century manuscript at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and the British Museum in London:
“Turdella, se mare stær” (turdella is apparently a misspelling of turdela, a thrush in medieval Latin, while mare appears to be a misspelling of mere, Old English for pond, lake, or sea).
The dictionary’s earliest example for “starling” is from another Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, stærlinc.” From Harley 107, an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript in the British Library.
Although the use of “stare” by itself for “starling” is considered archaic now, the usage does show up at times in poetry and literary prose, as you’ve noticed. The Yeats poem, part of the lyrical sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” was written during the 1922-23 Irish Civil War that followed the Irish War of Independence.
As to the use of “stare” with a descriptive term for a specific starling, it also shows up once in a while, though now for only one bird. Saroglossa spiloptera, the spot-winged starling of southern Asia, is sometimes referred to as the “spotted-winged stare” or “spot-winged stare.”