Martha muses about the language of falconry, and in the process, reveals the origins of several words and phrases in one fell swoop.

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Did you know that a falcon’s eyeballs are so huge that they take up most of its head—and that those two eyes are separated only by a thin membrane?

That’s just one of the fun facts I learned from a new book called Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West.

The author, Rachel Dickinson, is married to a falconer. Her book is a glimpse into the world of this centuries-old blood sport.

Now, I’ll admit it: The blood part makes me queasy. but the book gave me a whole new appreciation for the vocabulary of falconry.

Take the word haggard. It describes a worn, tired, gaunt appearance.
But did you know that originally haggard applied to birds? Specifically, haggard described an adult female hawk caught in the wild, not raised in captivity.

By the 16th century, the word had came to denote anyone similarly “wild or intractable.” Later haggard was applied more generally.

In Shakespeare’s day, falconry was an aristocratic sport. You see lots of images from it in his plays. There’s jealous Othello, fretting that Desdemona may prove to be “haggard”—that is, wild and out of his control.

Or in Macbeth, the character MacDuff is aghast when he learns that his family’s been murdered in “one fell swoop.” The image of is the way a falcon swoops down from the sky, and strikes with swift ferocity. The “fell” in “one fell swoop” is an adjective. It means “inhumanly cruel.” This fell is a linguistic relative of “felon.”

Then there’s the term “pride of place.” Today it means “the highest or most important location”: as in “High-definition TVs enjoy pride of place in many living rooms.”

Originally, “pride of place” meant the airy height from which that falcon swoops. You see this phrase in Macbeth, when Shakespeare uses it to suggest that unnatural, ominous things are happening: “A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.”

Anyway, if you want a closer look at the odd and bloody subculture of falconry, check out Dickinson’s book. It’ll give you a whole new sense of birds and words.

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