Emperor penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica
Image credit: Michael Van Woert, 1999, NOAA

There’s universal agreement today that a penguin is:

Any of various stout, flightless aquatic birds of the family Spheniscidae, of the Southern Hemisphere, having flipperlike wings and webbed feet adapted for swimming and diving, short scalelike feathers, and white underparts with a dark back (AHD).

It’s possible that penguin is of Welsh origin; it breaks down very neatly into pen + gwen/gwyn, with pen meaning “head,” and gwen meaning “white,” (and there are species of penguin with white heads).

However, the etymology isn’t at all certain. The OED offers two early quotations in context:

1577 F. FLETCHER Log of ‘Golden Hind’ 24 Aug. in N. M. Penzer World Encompassed (1971) 128 Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.

1589 N. H. in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1589) III. 809 The Port of Desire… In this place we had gulles, puets, penguyns, and seales in aboundance.

The OED also expounds in a lengthy etymology note after first observing that penguin was first applied to the Great Auk, and that penguins resemble the Great Auk as a large flightless waterfowl, with black-and-white  as primary colorations:

The attribution of the name penguin to ‘the Welsh men’ . . . and its explanation as Welsh pen gwyn white head, appears also in Ingram’s Narrative, and later in Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels (in the edition of 1634 as a surmise, and in the edition of 1638 as an accepted fact). Since the bird was known in the far north of Europe under a different name (see GARE-FOWL n.), it is likely that the term penguin originated in North America. However, the Great Auk did not have a white head (though it had large white spots in front of the eyes).

The OED notes in closing that

An alternative derivation of the name < classical Latin pinguis fat (see pinguid adj.) or an early association with this word is therefore possible and may be supported by the relative frequency of forms in pin– in most languages from an early date. Compare German Fettgans fat goose, also penguin (18th cent.).

Nonetheless, a Welsh influence, if not a derivation, does seem to be a reasonable explanation for penguin.

March from the Très Riches Heures

In this book of hours calendar image for March from the Trés Riches Heures of Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v), the foreground shows a man ploughing with an ox. It’s a common motif in terms of the labors of the months in books of hours. The labors of March typically involve pruning trees or grape vines, or digging or ploughing in non-wine producing regions.

The calendar page for March from the Trés Riches Heures of the Jean Duc du Berry (Musé Condee MS 65 F3v)

In the foreground, a peasant, wearing leggings and a hat, plows with an ox. Above that, to the left, three peasants are working with the vines, probably pruning and re-tying them. Above and two the right, a peasant with a sack is doing something to a field. I suspect (but do not know) that he’s spreading manure on a field deliberately left fallow.

It was fairly common to use a three-field system of crop rotation. One field was planted with wheat or rye in the fall, for human consumption. A second field was used in spring to raise peas, beans, and lentils for human use, and oats and barley for the horses. The third field is allowed to lie fallow, and rest. It would be plowed, working aged manure into the soil, and any spontaneous weeds and grasses could be used for grazing, resulting in more manure to be plowed under a second time.

The field planted with beans, and lentils, with legumes in summer could be re-used the next winter for winter wheat or rye, because legumes, as nitrogen fixers, enrich the soil. Each year, the field used for a specific crop rotated among the three fields.

I suspect the fellow with a sack is spreading manure that will be plowed under while the field lies fallow. The third field, off to the right, looks as if it’s already been planted. Across from it, on the top left, there’s a shepherd with his sheep and dog; he appears to be hurriedly covered, perhaps hoping to avoid the storm that appears hovering in the sky above.

The castle in the background is one of several owned by Jean Duc du Berry; it is the castle of Lusignan in Poitou, famous for the legend about the fairy Melusine, ancestress of the Lusignans. Melusine, who reverted to a mermaid form, or in some versions, became a serpent from the waist down. on alternate Saturday. Melusine, after a spat with her husband Guy de Lusignan, Count of Poitou, transformed into a dragon, and flew off (hence the dragon flying overhead on the top right).