Last week, having just finished an interesting but somewhat hectic project, I allowed myself some breathing space and sauntered over to a small Christmas fair here in Zutphen. There was a local folk-dance group, all dressed in costumes my own late great-grandparents would have worn and performing country dances on clogs. There was a friendly lady spinning and carding fleeces, who patiently answered all my eager questions (I’m a knitting person myself). And then, in a corner, I saw a few large birds. A falconer! He had some ten birds in all; several species of falcon and hawk, a squabbling pair of barn owls, and a lovely, gentle turkey vulture. I have a soft spot for vultures, much maligned as they are. Yes, they eat dirt, and what’s wrong with that?
On his fist the falconer carried his top attraction: a full-sized eagle owl. Full-sized is really, really big in the case of eagle owls. They will deal with a careless fox if that is all they can get, and they eat prickly hedgehogs for breakfast. This one, however, didn’t look particularly hungry just yet, and I could get up close & personal, gazing deeply into those wonderful, orange eyes while the falconer told various interesting things about its private life. Suddenly one word caught my attention. It sounded like ‘tarsel’, and the falconer used it when referring to male birds. I asked the man to repeat it, and it was indeed ‘tarsel’: a male eagle owl. He said it had something to do with the word ‘three’ and that it referred to the smaller size of male eagle owls (roughly a third of the females’). Tarsel! I had never heard it before, in any language. It had an oddly ancient flavour to it, enough to raise my archaeological and linguistic instincts. For the next few days I chewed on it, and then I decided to find out more about it.
I had a hunch where to look. The ‘tar-/ter-‘ suggested something central- or south-European, probably Romance, and old; and the ‘-sel’ too had a Romance, if Germanicised, flavour. The word wasn’t in any of my printed dictionaries. Long live the internet: I Ixquicked (I don’t Google). Initially without result, but a reference to Chaucer, falcons and ‘tercel/tarsel’ provided the first opening. Chaucer, falcons: that suggested falconry, Middle English and ultimately French roots. And yes! There it was. Tarsel, not in any Dutch dictionary but definitely the word I heard. Middle English tercel/tarsel, from Old French terçuel, from Vulgar Latin *tertillus, diminutive of Latin tertius, third; with an Indo-European root trei-. My hunch had been correct. True, every instance of tercel/tarsel I could find referred to male falcons, not eagle owls. But changes in a language never proceed with strict logic and regularity, like a cool Vulcan working on a warp drive problem. Languages are rather like Klingons were before the Federation tamed them. If a male falcon is a tarsel, then any male bird of prey (with or without cloaking device) is a tarsel, never mind that this one is fluffy, eats hedgehogs and cries ‘UHU’.
Only a person who is equally language-mad can understand my excitement. One obscure little word for the male of one species of bird that most people have never even seen. It was my reward for the previous week’s hard work.