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Take a Word.... Crow: Etymology, Definition, Idioms, Associations and a Story

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I love words; old words, new words, their etymology and idiomatic use. I like to highlight the variety of uses even common words offer.

Crow (Corvus)

Definition and Etymology

Definition of Crow:

1.

  • a large perching bird of the genus ‘corvus’, with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice;
  • general common name of birds of the genus Corvus, which include: Ravens, Rooks, Crows, Jackdaws, Choughs, Jays and Magpies, of which there are various species across the world.

2.

  • a member of a North American people inhabiting eastern Montana,
  • their language (about 5,000 speakers)

It comes from the French ‘gens de corbeaux’ (people of the crows) and the Siouan ‘apsaaloke’, (crow people).

Etymology:

Old English crawe, of West Germanic origin, related to Old Saxon kraia, Dutch kraai which is held to be imitative of the bird's cry, Old High German chraja and German Kräke.

I love that all those words are onomatopoeic.


What do you Think of Crows?

The word ‘crow’ has sinister overtones; collectively known as ‘a murder of crows’, they are predominately black, are associated with death, witches, and with harshness or cruelty. A farmer would string up dead crows on his boundaries, to ward off other crows. They would put scarecrows in the fields to stop them and other birds eating the crop. I have heard support for and against these birds.

I think they get a bad press.

Yes, they can be cruel, but that is nature, that is survival. They are intelligent birds, they can mimic and some branches of the corvus family are sociable, especially rooks.

Let’s have a closer look at this bird, by means of a little story.


'Stone the Crows!'

‘Well, stone the crows!’ said Sam. Her jaw dropped; her eyes wide in wonder looked straight into the face of …. a crow! The crow was equally struck, cawed with great force three times and turned its back on her. Maybe it was her words that had offended.

The bird had no choice but to stay. It perched on Tom’s hand, a thin leather strap about its ankle, and muttered, grumpy, feathers ruffled.

“Ok, Cor, you can have a flight in a minute. Just humour me and sit on Sam’s hand for a while.”

He passed a glove for her to put on, unlaced the bird from his grasp and settled Cor onto Sam. There was no weight, no substance even, but plenty of character. He cawed his annoyance once more, a rasping throaty yell right in her ear, as if he knew the volume was deafening, crowing over his ability to make a noise, to use his force. Another piercing look at close quarters made it clear that he didn’t think much of being on show, a ‘Don’t expect me to do tricks for you!’ sort of look. But deep in those eyes was a challenge, a humour, to see if she could rise to the occasion.


Bird Sanctuary

Tom had promised for ages to take Sam to his bird sanctuary, only a mile from her house as the crow flies. He was one of those people who took in strays, a kind man full of smiles, as the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes verified. It only took one instance of him finding an injured swan on the lake, taking it home and mending its leg, before word spread. Never one to crow about his expertise, it took him by surprise. Now all and sundry brought any creature in need of help, mainly birds, to his door. Thus, Cor had arrived with a broken wing.

The swan had been restored to the wild, close to its bevy in the fields. Cor was mended and set free but he didn’t want to go! He was only fettered when people asked to hold him, see him at close quarters.

By a strange quirk of fortune for the then lone crow, another had been brought in, this time with a broken leg. Again, it didn’t want to leave. Set free, it came back to accompany Cor. A female, as it happened, and they made a happy pair.

Cor’s name was not just an echo of his call. ‘Cor blimey!’ being a Cockney phrase, suited to the upfront, in-your-face way of talking that Cockneys are supposedly famous for, it seemed the obvious name for this cheeky bird. I suppose you’re wondering about his mate’s name – Cora, of course!

Fortunately, Tom’s place was a country farm, a fair distance from neighbours so nobody could complain of excessive noise. A few chickens and a cockerel roamed around. At cock-crow, he would let rip just to make sure no one overslept. The hens made a similar noise, though shorter, when they laid eggs or, strangely, when they were about to lay. There is no logic to hens!


Trouble in the Hedgerow

Sam became a regular visitor but Cor was still not happy to be friends. One day, a ruckus in the hedgerow caught Sam’s attention. Cora was screeching and crashing amongst the twigs. Beyond the hedge, a figure in black was trying to grab the bird. Sam yelled,

“What are you doing? Leave her alone! Go away!”

A face that looked old, wizened, had turned to face her. Loose, tattered black clothes hung on sharp bones and a woman’s voice rang out,

“I can’t reach it!”

By this time, Cor had arrived and was bombarding the woman’s head with fluttering wings and hard pecks on her head.

“Get away, you old crow!” retorted Sam. “She’s not harming you. Why are you attacking her?”

The woman stood still, gazed at Sam with sad eyes, and said,

“This crow is stuck. She’s held on a thorn. But she doesn’t want my help. Nor, apparently, do you.”

Sam felt remorse. Sam and the woman gently teased the twigs from Cora, held her gently to check that she was unharmed, and let her go. Cor still fluttered in agitation but did not attack the woman again. He went to join Cora on a nearby branch; both birds calmed themselves and perched, watching.

“Thank you,” said Sam. “I’m so sorry I accused you of intending harm.”

“Many take me to be a witch,” replied the woman, “as I’m not fair of face nor do I meet fashion’s demands. However, we freed the bird and that’s all that matters.”

It seemed that Cor was of the same opinion. He flew down to Sam, sat on her forearm, and his eyes fixed hers. This time, he didn’t turn his back, he didn’t caw in her ear, he merely sat and muttered softly. He stayed for a few minutes.

Vera (for at last the countryside wanderer gave her name) was offered a rest with a cup of tea at the farmhouse. Tom was grateful when he heard the story. She told them about the meanings of ‘crow’, how ‘crow bait’ referred to an animal or other creature near death, how ‘going down the crow road’ referred to people who were dying. All death, death, death!

Sam came up with some positives, though. A crow-bar was useful for prising apart a difficult joint or fusion. Sailors of yore would send their spritely lads to the top of the ship’s mast, where there was a basket in which to sit, to scour the horizon for land; so he would stay a while in …. yes, of course, you’ve got it… the crows-nest.

From then on, Vera often stopped by. During those tea-times, Cor and Cora would perch on the back of the bench by the outside table, nibbling the occasional biscuit carefully placed by Sam.

........................................................................................................................

More references to Crow

  • crow - slang name for cannabis
  • Crow Bag - military Combat Recruit Of War (Bag - no particular significance) (urban dictionary)
  • Jim Crow - the systemic discrimination against African Americans that occurred in the southern US from the end of the American Civil War until the 1960s, in which black people were treated as a lower class of citizens than white people.
  • Many are calling any present systemic racism the ‘new Jim Crow’.


Celtic Knot - a Connection with the Crow

Celtic Mystic Circle or Triquetra

Celtic Mystic Circle or Triquetra

Representation of the Crow

In researching this, I learnt something new. It seems that the crow is associated with change or transformation, not just physical but rather a spiritual or emotional change. It is said that these intelligent birds give us insight into situations around us and help us adapt as needed.

They are also linked with mystery and magic, not always in connection with darkness and evil portent. The Celtic belief is outlined in these two paragraphs:

‘The Celtic crow symbol stands for individuality, prophetic knowledge, and a complete disregard for what others think. The crow embodies a combination of abilities and skills, mostly.

Celtics also deeply honour crows as a sign sent to them by prophets or oracles in a practice of clairvoyance. The Celts so believed the crows carried secrets between the feathers of their wings.’

What a lovely image! It certainly backs up their raucous behaviour and apparent disregard of anything and anyone else!


Chough

Clever and good at mimicry - the striking Chough

Clever and good at mimicry - the striking Chough

Pet Chough

In my youth, a long, long time ago, I lived and went to Primary School in the perfect village of Hurstpierpoint (wood of the Pierpoint family), Sussex. I walked up the hill to the village often, and on several of those walks I encountered a boy on whose shoulder rode a Chough (pronounced ‘chuff’), a member of the corvus family. Imagine my surprise and delight when I first saw it (and the lad wasn’t bad, either)! I smiled and stopped. He told me about the bird which was happy for me to touch its head. It was another injured bird that had stayed. What a striking creature, with its stark black plumage and loud red beak and legs! That was the first and last time I saw a chough. The lad must have moved away as I never saw him, nor the bird, again.


Magpie (pica-pica)

Beautiful plumage of the pica-pica

Beautiful plumage of the pica-pica

Magpie Nursery Rhyme

This rhyme refers to the number of magpies you might see at one time and is used as a fortune-teller.

One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret, never to be told

Eight for a wish

Nine for a kiss

Ten for a bird you must not miss.


I always tried to make up secrets which I’d never tell!


Books with Crow in the Title

I have read the first two of these titles and thoroughly enjoyed them. The first is aimed at reluctant readers or dyslexics, the use of vocabulary being matched to particular reading ages.

  • ‘Crow Girl’ - by Kate Cann, it’s about a ‘Goth’ girl who is befriended by crows; she gives them food and they help her. It’s also about adolescence and growing up. There are two sequels, ‘Crow Girl Returns’ and ‘Crow Girl Rises’
  • The Crow Road - Iain Banks 1992 - this murder story has the best opening line ever! A film followed the book, as well as a television series.
  • The Fox and the Crow - an Aesop’s Fable

The one non-fiction title I came across, which sounds wonderful, is

‘Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans’ - John M Marzluff, Tony Angela

I’ve since found another by Marzluff, ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’.

Look up Non-Fiction: Crows & Ravens, and you will find a few more intriguing titles.


Sources

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/crow

etymonline.com

barringtonstoke.co.uk (excellent books for those with literacy difficulties)

https://www.worldbirds.org/crow-symbolism/


© 2021 Ann Carr

Comments

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 21, 2021:

I'd love to see it if you find it. Thanks.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 21, 2021:

Thank you Ann. No I didn't publish it here. I'll try to dig it up so you can have a look. It was in my very early, crude cave drawing stage of writing. I like to think I've improved since then. It will be interesting to find out.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 21, 2021:

Thank you, Mel, for your great comments and input; much appreciated.

I hope you find that story - it would be great to have a look at it. Did you originally publish it on HP?

I find it fascinating that all of the corvus family are involved in legend and mystery somewhere along the line. Often the 'crow' label is used for all the black ones, though their size defines them, especially ravens!

Thanks for the visit. Great to see you here!

Ann

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 21, 2021:

I loved this story. I am a big Crow fan.

With crows, you either love them or hate them. There is no neutral ground. That's because they are intelligent, voracious, predatious omnivores, just like us. Competition, in other words. They are scoundrels, raiding songbirds nests for eggs and young. No different than how we exploit other species for food. But I still can't help but admire the intelligence of these animals.

About 15 years ago I wrote a short called Crow Land. It was inspired by a massive crow roost at the then local shopping mall in Chula Vista California. Before roosting in the mall's Eucalyptus trees, the crows put on an aerial display, circling the mall, landing, taking off again, circling, landing, etc., rinse repeat. This goes on for at least half an hour until they finally settle down in the trees.

But once they settle in the trees it is dark and you can't see them anymore, of course because they are black so they blend into the night sky. And they don't make a peep - it is like they disappeared. So I wondered if maybe there is a secret, extra dimensional Crow Land they go to at night.

Anyhow, the story was along that theme. A young boy dies, comes back as a crow, and leads his best friend to crow land. The dead coming back as a crow is another common mythological motif.

Just thought I would share that with you. I don't know where that story is but maybe I'll try to dig it up.

Great work. You really got my brain flowing here.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Hello, Sha! Lovely to see you!

What a great story that is! It bears out the Celtic philosophy surrounding them. The crows obviously do have an intelligence that most don't know about or understand. It doesn't surprise me at all. I also remember with fondness the Chough which had befriended the boy I met.

It was the Celtic connection that I'd never heard of before and I like that slant. I tried to get the spiritual connection into this story without making it too slushy, so I'm pleased you liked the tale.

Hope all's well with you and yours; stay safe!

Ann

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on January 19, 2021:

Ann, this was a fascinating read and I love the fictional tale you weaved into the article. Crows are actually very intelligent birds and will befriend you if you're kind to them.

I once had a boyfriend who asked me why crows were suddenly flying over his house daily, in flocks. He asked me because of my distant Cherokee heritage. He figured I might have an insight different from what most people think of crows symbolically. Many people think the appearance of crows is ominous, but that's not always the case. I told him they had suddenly appeared because a change, journey if you will, was about to come into his life. We stopped seeing each other not too long after that, but something significant happened in his life soon thereafter. He almost died - twice. First of liver failure, then of a stroke. He fully recovered from both. I must interject that he was a raging alcoholic. Big time. Needless to say, he stopped drinking entirely. He now is a key member of the Red Cross. He travels to areas in need and trains the volunteers.

The crows were a sign of a new path for this man who was digging his own grave. He rose from the ashes, so to speak, and turned his life around.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

manatita: Thank you for your kind words. I might well have been editing my article - I'm not sure how that works.

I love birds of prey and also the corvus family; they all have a mystic following that's fascinating, but they all have such characters and such skills. Ravens are, of course, the same family as crows and have a slightly higher intelligence, presumably because they have larger brains! The corvus' position in nature teaches us a lot and they also have, I believe, a spirituality which sometimes leans towards us.

Thanks for your visit - glad you found it in the end!

Ann

manatita44 from london on January 19, 2021:

I knew I had seen your article, somehow, then it sort of disappeared for a while. I'm here though.

I not only think your story is brilliant, but I love the way you showed the 'energy' of how crows are usually portrayed. We mystics use birds a lot! Birds, nature, music, including the cosmos. A kind of specialty of ours.

I mention this, as we hardly touch crows. More ravens and falcons, but again in context, particularly where you relate to spiritual qualities towards the end of your piece. I go for the Phoenix for Light and immortality and the eagle for soring high. An excellent work, Ann. More kudos to you!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Yes, crowing over what you can do is one meaning here too, as in the story. They have been known to bend a piece of wire to tease out insects from wood - brilliant, eh? Never heard of them leaving gifts though - that's cool!

Thanks, Linda, for your comments. Good to see you!

Ann

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on January 19, 2021:

Crows are amazingly intelligent beings. They recognize human faces, use tools, and learn from one another. I've heard stories that they leave "gifts" for people who feed them. The expression "bird brain" does not apply to them. Maybe that's why one definition of crow (at least in the USA), is "to boast.".

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

I'm glad to have created a convert, Mary!

I must confess that I'm not a fan of magpies, though. I find one particular cry of theirs disturbing as it indicates they're attacking another bird's nest. I usually go out and clap my hands to make them fly off!

Thank you for your comment. I hope you can see crows in a better light! Thanks for popping in today. Always good to see you, Mary.

Ann

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 19, 2021:

Wow, I usually don't like crows coming to our cottage. I don't like their sounds but after reading this hub, I will now welcome them and get to know them better.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Well, thank you very much, Devika! What a lovely comment!

All is well, thank you. We're are staying at home, as instructed, and having food delivered so staying as safe as possible.

I hope you're well too, in these troubled times.

Ann

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 19, 2021:

Hi Ann, I enjoyed reading about crows. An impressive write on this topic. I have not read anything as interesting as this in a while. I hope all is well with you

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Thanks, John. I do enjoy writing these but have kept fiction hubs back for a while, as you know. These straddle the fiction/non-fiction areas so I'm happy with that.

Thanks for your encouragement.

What with Covid and the weather, I often wish I was in Oz at the moment! Take care!

Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Hi Flourish! Thanks for your kind words. Glad you liked this and learnt some new sayings. Hanging the dead birds along the fence is often done here, just like putting up scarecrows to put off any of the birds. Not pleasant but the ways of the countryside are practical, I suppose!

Thanks for popping by; I appreciate your support and hope you're keeping well.

Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Peggy: Thank you for such a lovely comment. I'm glad you liked the story. It is set in our local countryside, where there are quite a few animal sanctuaries. We had a swan stuck in Bridgwater marina some years back, surrounded by ice and unable to move. I phoned the closest sanctuary, called Secret World, and they fetched it, sorted it out, and put it back where it belonged.

Hope you're keeping safe and well, Peggy.

Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Eric, I'm glad you enjoyed this. I like that you put out food for the birds. They don't appear much in our garden but they do hang around in the trees next to us. Round here in general there tend to be many rookeries. As a corvus which is even more sociable, the rooks congregate in hundreds in the tallest trees - it's quite a sight, and boy do they make a noise!

Thanks for popping in, and keep safe and well, Eric.

Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Thanks, bill! Apparently, crows are up there in intelligence with the ape and humans (maybe superior, as you say!).

I'd forgotten 'eat crow'. Apart from meaning being humble after a climb-down, seems it's linked to the fact that the crow eats carrion, not a pleasant concept to 'swallow'!

Glad you liked this and thanks for the encouragement. I enjoyed getting back to this series. There are a few more in the pipeline and it's a comfy half-way position between fact and fiction for me on the HP site.

You keep safe and well too!

Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 19, 2021:

Thank you Cheryl. I appreciate your visit.

Ann

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 18, 2021:

Ann. I loved the story as well as the facts about crows and other members of the 'corvus' family. Good to see you are still continuing this series.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 18, 2021:

The sheer variety is impressive here and I really like the story of rehabbing injured birds. I hadn’t heard some of the sayings about death. I like crows and think it’s terrible for farmers to string dead ones up.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 18, 2021:

What a wonderful story you wove about injured crows who came to stay. I could well imagine it happening in that country setting. I also learned some different meanings of which I was unfamiliar. Crows are intelligent birds. Thanks for writing this fantastic article. Keep playing with words. It adds to our base of knowledge.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 18, 2021:

I love the bird and I love this piece. What a great story. I could just envision the whole thing.

I leave out bread just so they drop in on the murder's daily migration.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 18, 2021:

Well that was fun!

I, too, think the crow has received some bad press. Eat crow? What is that? What did the poor crow ever do to any of us?

I don't mind them at all; in fact, I find them pretty entertaining. I do give them wide birth when walking near them; those beaks are pretty long and look quite deadly. :)

Nothing but respect for crows - I suspect they are quite a bit smarter than some Americans these days, but you didn't hear me say that.

Thoroughly enjoyed this, my friend, and I'm looking forward to the next one in the series.

Be well this week!

bill

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on January 18, 2021:

Very enlightening I learned a lot..

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 18, 2021:

Glad you enjoyed this, Pamela, and thank you for such lovely words. I love doing these word hubs but have shied away from them for a while, with HP's treatment of our fiction/part fiction work.

I didn't realise that the crow has a lot to do with Celtic beliefs and I'm going to research that a bit more.

Great to see you this evening. Take care.

Ann

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 18, 2021:

I never knew there were so many meanings for crow. This is such an interesting article, and the word crow has so many different connotations. i really enjoyed your article, Ann. It made me want to read those books as well. Thank you for this fascinating excursion.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 18, 2021:

Thank you, Liz! I love doing this 'Take a word' series. I too love the way words are linked to different things and incorporated into so many idioms. I appreciate your kind comments, as always.

Take care.

Ann

Liz Westwood from UK on January 18, 2021:

This is an amazing fact file on the word 'crow' combined with a well-written and interesting story in the middle. It is fascinating to explore how words and their meanings have developed.

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