What's In A Name?
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Introducing the Blue-billed Teal and Fynbos Buttonquail
Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk

Juliet’s rhetorical question to Romeo in the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s play is one of the Bard’s most quoted and abused lines of poetry. She may be a Capulet and he a Montague, but she loves him nonetheless.

A sage contributor invoked this line in a recent discussion around news that the proposal to rename two birds found in South Africa – the Hottentot Teal and the Hottentot Buttonquail – had been approved by the naming committee of BirdLife South Africa and the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). The new names appear in IOC version 11.1, which was published in January 2021. And while it is true that what we now call a Bluebilled Teal would be as beautiful by any other name, it is also true that there is, in fact, a lot in a name.

For some birders, the change of names represents nothing more than political correctness run wild, a vain project of ‘verbal cleansing’ by leftist intellectuals, to quote conservative writer Thomas Sowell.

The simple truth, however, is that the word ‘Hottentot’ is offensive and always was. Intentionally so. It was a term coined by Dutch settlers that mimicked the rhythms and sounds of indigenous language families such as Khoe, Kx’a and Tuu. The settlers’ inability to understand the languages meant they were, to European ears, not languages at all but rather the mere ‘clucking of turkeys’. And so ‘Hottentot’ became a term of indiscriminate dismissal of a number of distinct indigenous cultures. In a widely circulated mail on the topic, Professor Adrian Koopman has provided a dense overview of the origins of the word ‘Hottentot’ and its use in bird guides of the 20th century in particular.

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