The Pattycake Plover

Martinet, Dotterel

Good stories don’t need to be true — or rather, true stories don’t need to be factual. Here’s one of my new favorites, a tale purporting to explain the standard French name of the lovely Eurasian dotterel.

“Guignard” is another of those -ard names, indicating that the object or person so named does something to excess. In this case, the guignard does too much “guigner,” that is to say, it sneaks a look out of the corner of its eye at those who are watching or hunting it.

And the excess in that? As Aldrovandi tells us, quoting his English colleague John Caius,

this bird is extremely stupid, but very delicious as food, and we consider it among the finest of delicacies. It is taken at night with torches and by the movements of the hunter: for if he stretches out his arms, the bird extends its wings; if he raises his leg, the bird does the same. In short, whatever the bird catcher does, the bird does it, too. Paying so much attention to the gestures of humans, it is tricked by the bird catcher and snagged in his net.

Buffon adds that this “heaviness of mind and stupidity” is the source of the English “dotterel” and the Latin “morinellus,” both words meaning “little stupid creature.” The French name “guignard” simply specifies the form that stupidity takes, as the bird walks right up to its hunters as if entranced.

This remains the standard explanation of “guignard.”

But there’s an alternative, and this is the story that I find so captivating. Ménage and Jault report that this species is

restricted to the country around Chartres: it is a game bird of the size of a fat thrush, but rounder, and with unwebbed toes. This bird takes its name from a certain Jean Guignard, a citizen of Chartres, who in 1542 was the first to recognize how delicious it was. This Jean Guignard was the father of Denis Guignard, a lawyer in Chartres, and the grandfather of Jean Guignard, who had one daughter; she married the Sieur des Engins, also a lawyer in Chartres, and who in 1686 was alderman in that city.

The story is still encountered today, with the elder Jean Guignard identified more precisely as the pastry chef who created the first dotterel pies.

I’m skeptical, especially since my good friend google and I haven’t come up with an attestation for the tale before the nineteenth century. But that doesn’t keep me from liking this story. A lot.

Screenshot 2014-06-29 21.05.34