How Do You Say…?


I long ago reached the point that I just don’t care if someone pronounces a bird name in a way different from mine. As long as you give two syllables to “phoebe” and observe the juncture in “nuthatch,” I’m perfectly willing to believe that reasonable tongues might differ.

Pileated Woodpecker

Don’t we all have more important things to worry about?

That said, the stakes are higher when a bird bears the name of a historical person. I generally think we owe those eponymous souls a nod in the direction of the way they preferred their own names to be pronounced.

That information isn’t always easy to come by, of course. If you’re fortunate enough to know Vauxes and Bewicks and Bendires, they’ll be happy to help you out, but otherwise we’re cast on the tender mercies of family histories, most of them rare, obscure, and nearly inaccessible. Enter: Firestone Library.

In 1953, William Henry Waldo Sabine published his Sabin(e): The History of an Ancient English Surname, a typescript reproduced in 250 stenciled copies. One of those copies he presented to Princeton University, where it entered the library on November 18, 1954, and was shipped off in January 1955 for binding in the ugly gray card traditionally used for pamphlets and programs. It would be checked out for the very first time fifty-eight years later.

Most of the book’s hundred pages are filled with extracts from parish registers, pedigrees, wills, shields of arms — the usual miscellaneous debris of amateur genealogy. But here, on page 84, we have exactly what we’re looking for:

The correct pronunciation of SABINE in England is: SAB’ (short as in ‘cab’) and INE (long as in ‘wine’)…. The accent is placed on the first syllable, as marked.

For nigh onto 40 years now, I’ve been rhyming the name with the word “cabin.” And now comes an honest-to-goodness Sabine to tell me that I’ve been wrong. W.H.W., and thus almost certainly his famous relatives Edward and Joseph, pronounced their surname with a short vowel followed by a long. If we believe (we don’t necessarily have to) in honoring the practice of those who actually bear the name, many of us are going to have to change what we say when a pair of tangram wings flies past on a cold October morning.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 10.48.55 AM

W.H.W. Sabine goes on to add a note demonstrating abundantly the depth of his own feelings in the matter:

It is unfortunately necessary to insert here some remarks on the disagreeable practice of pronouncing Sabine as “Sabeen.” So far as this compiler knows, no Sabine in England does this, but it is very frequently done by other people…. If the people concerned would pause to think the matter over for a while, they might perceive that it would be just as reasonable for them to speak of the “feen Alpeen cleember who carried a carbeen on his shoulder and a bottle of ween in his pocket.” … In short, to borrow a phrase from H.W. Fowler, the pronunciation “Sabeen” shows ignorance of English more conspicuously than knowledge of French or Latin.

You know tempers are running hot when somebody trots out Fowler.




Enjoyed the article, Rick. This may take some getting used to, although a Sabine’s Gull would be rare indeed in the California desert where I live. Hopefully you’ll tackle more of these toughies.


So should the first syllable rhyme with the american ‘cab’ or the british ‘cab’?


There is no difference, Jacob.


Thanks, Rick. I’ll use this to improve the Wikipedia article. But what could you possibly mean by “more important things to worry about”?

The OED agrees with W. H. W. Sabine. I wonder whether he was their source.

Hi, Jacob. We met some years ago, through Ian Aeby, who I mention because we’re talking about names that are hard to pronounce.

Hoping for “jacana”, I remain,
very truly yours,
Jerry Friedman (FREED m’n).


Anything but jacana, Jerry, anything! Myself, I pronounce that troublesome word “LI-ly-trot-ter.”


Perhaps you’ve seen this commentary on the other dubious pronunciations: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/birdname.htm


How about the redneck way:”SAY-BYNE.” Reminds me of when I got drafted and had to drive from New Jersey to my first duty station in El Paso, Texas. Stopped for gas in Mississippi and, while filling the tank, the attendant read the the motto on my license plate, “Garden State.” In a friendly way, he said “Gordon’s Tight.” I looked a bit worried thinking he found something wrong with the car, so he repeated it. Naturally, I said “You better loosen it then.”


I remember being told many years ago by someone serving on a local records committee in the UK that he regularly had to adjudicate on reports of Sabine’s Gulls. He said he wasn’t too concerned about the pronunciation because as often as not they finished up being called Little Gulls.


Great sleuthing! Now, can you resolve in a similar fashion how we should pronounce Bachman’s Sparrow and Bachman’s Warbler?


Rick, I must disagree with your response to Jacob Socolar. At least to my ears, British “cab” sounds like cob (cawb) whereas American “cab” does not.


The British cab is a taxi.


Rob, no native speaker of British English pronounces that word “cawb.” Bad American actors in bad amateur theater, maybe….


I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something which too few people are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

Leave a Comment

 Subscribe in a reader

Nature Blog Network