The most notoriously colorful of English names assigned the common kestrel of the Old World is first attested at the very end of the sixteenth century in Thomas Nashe’s Lenten Stuff, a satirical panegyric on the fish served during Lent. “Filling themselves with wind [to] fly against the wind evermore,” Nashe’s hovering kestrels play the role of flag-bearers in the military campaign to restore a herring to his throne.
The offending name may have been current at the time for the real living bird, too, but it seems to have been used mostly as a crude insult, as when George Chapman sniffed at a certain “envious” such who, like a fluttering bird, could do no more than seek to impregnate the wind.
As far as I know, everyone has assumed—as I long did—that the notion of the hovering kestrel copulating with the breeze was an entirely English conceit. But I no longer believe that. Unless I’ve been misled by wild surmise, the same image was already afloat in Italy in the early sixteenth century.
In his Emblem 83, Andrea Alciato rebukes indolent poseurs—the ignavi—with the story of Asterias, a slothful slave who was transformed into an “ardeola stellaris,” presumably a bittern. Ancient poets, Alciato goes on, used the name ardelio for such a degenerate, “who moves his haunches lewdly in the air like the falcon.”
Leaving aside the catachresis, it is obvious that Alciato is describing the kestrel’s hovering exactly as Nashe and Chapman did. The Latin verb he uses, ceveo, has no meaning other than the prurient one, a counterpart to the better-known criso (from which ornithology has the terms “crissum” and “crissal“). Thus, kestrels appear to have exhibited the same aerial proclivities in Italy as in England—or rather, the Italians and the English seem to have humorously interpreted their motions in the same way.
It is important to note that just as Alciato uses the image of the hovering kestrel disparagingly, all of the English-language citations in the OED are taken from contexts ranging from the satirical to the insulting: none, in other words, applies the offensive label to a real bird. In addition to the quotations offered by the OED, it is also found in Pepys and in Jonson, but there too only as a term of opprobrium for a human, not as a genuine bird name.
Is it possible that the English moniker was in fact never used to straightforwardly denote the bird we know as Falco tinnunculus, and that behind it lurks a jocular, perhaps learned, simile like Alciato’s to the effect that the lazy poseur cevet in the wind like a kestrel? At the moment, at least, that is my suspicion.