When is a pea not a pea?

The pea in the English word peacock has nothing to do with peas but comes, via an Old English borrowing, from the Latin word for ‘peacock,’ which was pāvō.  Spanish speakers still use pavo, but for a different fowl, the turkey. The phrase pavo real designates the peacock, with its regal fan of feathers.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 10, 2016 @ 08:28:22

    “Peacock” is one of those words I used without thought. Now, I see that the scientific name, Pavo cristatus helps to clarify things. I was surprised to learn that pheasants and peafowl are related.

    Pavo real reminded me of a nearby road, El Camino Real. Traffic there during commute hours can be a real mess: both a royal mess, and a real (as opposed to imaginary) mess.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 11, 2016 @ 19:12:38

      It’s real fun to play with the words. Spanish has two unrelated adjectives that have ended up being real. One is the same as English real and goes back to the Latin word for ‘thing.’ The other, equivalent to English regal, goes back to the Latin word for ‘king.’ Etymologically speaking, the first adjective means ‘thing-y’ and the second means ‘king-y.’

      While modern traffic on El Camino Real may be a real pain, the highway began as The Royal Road (royal being a French derived doublet of regal).


  2. Maria F.
    Apr 11, 2016 @ 18:19:48

    There are feral populations of these peacocks in the U.S.. I remember seeing one in FL..


  3. Maria F.
    Apr 11, 2016 @ 20:52:19

    I was able to photograph the bird up-close here at a hotel in San Juan. They are very popular as tourist attractions. However, if allowed to roam freely in open gardens, they must be fenced in. Their call is so loud, that they can attract other birds colonies easily. This is what happened in FL, people started having them as pets, but didn’t realize their calls are so loud that they can attract each other until they meet.

    I tell you, the story of captive birds is pretty much disgraceful. I just don’t understand why people must hold exotic birds in captivity. I understand they are gorgeous, but they belong in their own jungles.


  4. kathryningrid
    Apr 12, 2016 @ 14:15:15

    Well, bless yo’ little pea-pickin’ heart, I didn’t know that! 😀


  5. Steve Schwartzman
    Apr 12, 2016 @ 14:27:05

    You’ve made me wonder whether any brand of peas has a peacock on the container. It would be wrong etymologically but might be a savvy promotional move.


  6. shoreacres
    Apr 17, 2016 @ 10:35:36

    I started thinking about the coin known as the real, and discovered this in the OED entry:

    “…due to different exchange rates of metal to paper money in the different states, the Spanish money had varying names from place to place. The Spanish real of one-eighth of a dollar, or 12 and a half cents, was a ninepence in New England, one shilling in New York, elevenpence or a levy in Pennsylvania, “and in many of the Southern States, a bit.”

    That makes sense of the old saying, “Shave and a haircut, six bits.” After all these years, I finally know six bits are equivalent to seventy-five cents. But this is even better:

    “The half-real was in New York a sixpence, in New England a fourpence, in Pennsylvania a fip, in the South a picayune.”

    I’ve used the New Orleans Times-Picayune for research, without ever researching its name. In fact, the newspaper “was established as The Picayune in 1837 by Francis Lumsden and George Wilkins Kendall. The paper’s initial price was one picayune, a Spanish coin equivalent to 6¼¢ (or precisely one-sixteenth of a dollar).”

    That’s real(ly) interesting.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 17, 2016 @ 10:58:07

      There’s a lot of variation in old units of weight, measure, and currency, as you’ve pointed out. Ounce and inch are etymologically the same word but an ounce is 1/16 of a pound while an inch is 1/12 of a foot.

      I once thought the word picayune might be from Spanish pequeño or Portuguese pequeno, but the American Heritage Dictionary offers a different account:


      The problem with naming an institution after a coin, as in the case of The Picayune, is that values don’t stay constant. I remember staying at a Motel 6 decades ago when a room really did cost $6.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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