Sir Thomas Browne (1683) Certain Miscellany Tracts. Tract IV: Answer to Certain Queries relating to Fishes, Birds, Insects, pp. 103-109.




To certain


Relating to

Fishes, Birds, Insects.


I return the following Answers to your Queries which were these,

[1. What Fishes are meant by the Names, Halec and Mugil?1

2. What is the Bird which you will receive from the Bearer? and what Birds are meant by the names Halcyon, Nyssus, Ciris, Nycticorax ?

3. What Insect is meant by the word Cicada ? ]

The word Halec we are taught to render an Herring, which, being an ancient word, is not strictly appropriable unto a Fish not known or not described by the Ancients; and which the modern Naturalists are fain to name Harengus; the word Halecula being applied unto such little Fish out of which they were fain to make Pickle; and Halec or Alec, taken for the Liquamen or Liquor it self, according to that of the Poet,2

— Ego fæcem primus & Alec
Primus & inveni piper album—

And was a conditure and Sawce much affected by Antiquity, as was also Muria and Garum.3

In common constructions, Mugil is rendred a Mullet, which, notwithstanding, is a different Fish from the Mugil described by Authours;4 wherein, if we mistake, we cannot so closely apprehend the expression of Juvenal,

Quosdam ventres & Mugilis intrat.5

And misconceive the Fish, whereby Fornicatours were so opprobriously and irksomely punished; for the Mugil being somewhat rough and hard skinned, did more exasperate the gutts of such offenders: whereas the Mullet was a smooth Fish, and of too high esteem to be imployed in such offices.

Answer to Query 2.

I cannot but wonder that this Bird you sent should be a stranger unto you, and unto those who had a sight thereof: for, though it be not seen every day, yet we often meet with it in this Country. It is an elegant Bird, which he that once beholdeth can hardly mistake any other for it. From the proper Note it is called an Hoopebird with us; in Greek Epops, in Latin Upupa. We are little obliged unto our School instruction, wherein we are taught to render Upupa a Lapwing, which Bird our natural Writers name Vannellus; for thereby we mistake this remarkable Bird, and apprehend not rightly what is delivered of it.6

We apprehend not the Hieroglyphical considerations which the old Ægyptians made of this observable Bird; who considering therein the order and variety of Colours, the twenty six or twenty eight Feathers in its Crest, his laititancy, and mewing this handsome outside in the Winter; they made it an Emblem of the varieties of the World, the succession of Times and Seasons, and signal mutations in them. And therefore Orus, the Hieroglyphick of the World, had the head of an Hoopebird upon the top of his Staff.

Hereby we may also mistake the Duchiphath, or Bird forbidden for Food in Leviticus;7 and, not knowing the Bird, may the less apprehend some reasons of that prohibition; that is, the magical virtues ascribed unto it by the Ægyptians, and the superstitious apprehensions which that Nation held of it, whilst they precisely numbered the Feathers and Colours thereof, while they placed it on the heads of their Gods, and near their Mercurial Crosses, and so highly magnified this Bird in their sacred Symbols.8

Again, not knowing or mistaking this Bird, we may misapprehend, or not closely apprehend, that handsome expression of Ovid, when Tereus was turned into an Upupa, or Hoopebird.9

Vertitur in volucrem cui sunt pro vertice Cristæ,
Protinus immodicum surgit pro cuspide rostrum
Nomen Epops volucri, facies armata videtur.

For, in this military shape, he is aptly phancied even still revengefully to pursue his hated Wife Progne: in the propriety of his Note crying out, Pou, pou, ubi ubi, or Where are you?

Nor are we singly deceived in the nominal translation of this Bird: in many other Animals we commit the like mistake. So Gracculus is rendred a Jay, which Bird notwithstanding must be of a dark colour according to that of Martial,10

Sed quandam volo nocte nigriorem
Formica, pice, Gracculo, cicada.

Halcyon is rendred a King-Fisher, a Bird commonly known among us,11 and by Zoographers and Naturals the same is named Ispida, a well coloured Bird frequenting Streams and Rivers, building in holes of Pits, like some Martins, about the end of the Spring; in whose Nests we have found little else than innumerable small Fish Bones, and white round Eggs of a smooth and polished surface, whereas the true Alcyon is a Sea Bird, makes an handsome Nest floating upon the Water, and breedeth in the Winter.

That Nysus should be rendred either an Hobby or a Sparrow Hawk, in the Fable of Nysus and Scylla in Ovid,12 because we are much to seek in the distinction of Hawks according to their old denominations, we shall not much contend, and may allow a favourable latitude therein: but that the Ciris or Bird into which Scylla was turned should be translated a Lark, it can hardly be made out agreeable unto the description of Virgil in his Poem of that name,13

Inde alias volucres minioque infecta rubenti
Crura —

But seems more agreeable unto some kind of Hæmantopus or Redshank; and so the Nysus seems to have been some kind of Hawk, which delighteth about the Sea and Marishes, where such prey most aboundeth, which sort of Hawk while Scaliger determineth to be a Merlin, the French Translatour warily expoundeth it to be kind of Hawk.

Nycticorax we may leave unto the common and verbal translation of a Night Raven, but we know no proper kind of Raven unto which to confine the same, and therefore some take the liberty to ascribe it unto some sort of Owls, and others unto the Bittern; which Bird in its common Note, which he useth out of the time of coupling and upon the Wing, so well resembleth the croaking of a Raven that I have been deceived by it.

Answer to Query 3.

While Cicada is rendered a Grashopper, we commonly think that what is so called among us to be the true Cicada; wherein, as we have elsewhere declared,14 there is a great mistake: for we have not the Cicada in England, and indeed no proper word for that Animal, which the French nameth Cigale. That which we commonly call a Grashopper, and the French Saulterelle being one kind of Locust, so rendred in the plague of Ægypt, and, in old Saxon named Gersthop.15

I have been the less accurate in these Answers, because the Queries are not of difficult Resolution, or of great moment: however, I would not wholly neglect them or your satisfaction, as being, Sir,

Yours, &c.


Original marginalia are in green.

1 Halec, allex, alec, or allec, a fish-pickle and hence the fish from which it is made; mugil, a mullet, in their usual translations. Translating the names of animals, and more particularly of fish, is an exercise fraught with infinite labor and necessary disappointment. See the introduction to any translation of Pliny’s books on marine animals (9 and 32). Or compare the names of fishes sold in restaurants and markets; what a “sole” is depends on where it is and what the fishmonger or restaurateur has decided can be fobbed off on his customers.

2 Horace, Sermones 2.4, 73-74, which reads:

3 Muria, brine; fish preserved in brine came also to be called “muria”, as also the sauce derived therefrom. Halec was probably originally the sauce, and the small fish were then named after the sauce. It is not entirely clear whether there was one fish called “halec”, or if a bunch of small and otherwise unusable fish were lumped together under “halec” (cf. “minnow” in its common acceptation and even, in some parts of the world, “smelt”). Garum is a sauce made by allowing fish to liquefy (or “putrefy”, as some put it, inaccurately) in a salt solution, exposed to the sun. The best was, according to Pliny, made of a fish called “garon” (whose identity is not known), and especially of its liver. Despite the sound of it, garum is actually very good and quite useful. Oriental fish sauces, including the Vietnamese nakh mum, are only a shadow of a well-made garum.

4 MS Sloane 1827 goes on: “for which I know not, perhaps, whether we have any proper name in English; and other nations nearly imitate the Latin.” For instance, “muge” in French, which has “mulet” as well for another fish.

5 Juvenal X.317.

6 The hoopoe, Upupa epops, mostly native to southern Europe and to Africa, a regular visitor to England. The lapwing is similarly crested, but as Browne points out, it isn’t the same bird.

7 Levit. 11:19. The Hebrew Duchiphathor Dukhiphath is translated epops in the Septuagint, opupa in the Vulgate. The Hebrew may not mean the hoopoe, some championing, if that is the word, the mountain cock or capcaillie.

8 Aristotle (History of Animals, Book IX) says that the hoopoe builds its nest of human excrement. Perhaps that, or at least that belief, has something to do with the prohibition? On the other hand, he also says (Book VI) that the hoopoe builds no nest.

9 Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI. 672-74.

10 Martial, Epigrams I, 115.

11 See Vulg. Err. B. 3. c.10 Vulgar Errors, III.10. The modern genus of Halcyon includes the ruddy kingfisher and the great kingfisher, Australasian birds. The related European kingfisher is Alcedo ispida. The story of the Halcyon nesting upon the water is generally regarded as fabulous.

12 Met. VIII.

13 Virgil, Ciris

14 Vulg. Err. B. 5. c.3. Vulgar Errors, V.3, a discourse on the pictorial representation of the cicada.

15 I have not seen gersthop; græshoppa, gærshoppa, etc. are the usual forms.

This page is by James Eason.