It can be hard enough to figure out how we know what we know. But it’s almost impossible to retrace the byzantine mental wanderings that made us think what we once thought.
Somehow, when I was in junior high, I managed to tangle up what little I knew about the French Revolution (then not long past) with what little I knew about hummingbirds, and convinced myself, or let myself be convinced, that the dazzling White-necked Jacobin had taken its odd name from the faction that seized power in the Convention in spring of 1793 — and from the bright slash across the nape, white in the big hummingbird but tending rather to the scarlet in Robespierre and his gang.
Nonsense. Spun from whole cloth, all of it.
The Friends of the Constitution just happened to meet in a former convent in the rue St-Jacques, and the bird just happens to have a hooded appearance recalling the cowled habit worn by the Jacobin Dominicans of eighteenth-century France.
The hummingbirds haven’t always been called jacobins in English, however. George Edwards, whose plate and description provided the basis for the scientific name given the species by Linnaeus fifteen years later, called it simply the “White-belly’d Hummingbird,” noting with approval that
the Colours in this Bird, as in most of this Kind, seem to be mixed with fine golden Threads, which make the whole Bird appear very splendid, when exposed to the Sun-beams.
Edwards’s no-nonsense, descriptive name was taken over by John Latham, who used it for forty years, including the White-bellied Humming-Bird in both the General Synopsis of 1782 and his 1822 General History.
Latham also includes accounts of the “Spotted” or “Spotted-necked” hummingbird, based on the “colibri piqueté” of Brisson: by the time he came to write the General History, however, Latham could inform his reader that other ornithologists (most notably Audebert and Vieillot) had tentatively identified this and other “varieties” as the females or young of the White-bellied. This was not the first and would not be the last time that ornithology put asunder what God had joined together.
George Shaw, meanwhile, in the unjustly ignored General Zoology, took his nomenclatural cues from Brisson, rendering the French ornithologist’s “oiseau-mouche à collier” as the White-collared Hummingbird. William Jardine, too, adopted that very appropriate and very dull name for what was in its day probably the most-read English-language book on the trochilids.
Those British ornithologists ignored the fact that across the Channel, the Comte de Buffon and his collaborators had in fact given the bird two names. The nineteenth hummingbird species in the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (completed six years before the fall of the Bastille) is “l’oiseau-mouche à collier — dit la Jacobine.” Says Buffon,
It is, obviously, the distribution of white in the bird’s plumage that gave rise to the idea of calling it Jacobine.
No surprise, of course, that an English hummingbird name should have its origin in a French hummingbird name. But look close: the French name is feminine, referring not to the Dominican monks of St-Jacques but to their female counterparts. In the French onomastic tradition, this brightly colored male hummingbird is named for the resemblance of its plumage to the habit of a nun.
Once sanctioned by Buffon, the name naturally caught on. Audebert and Vieillot used it in their monumental Oiseaux dorés,
as did Lesson in his Trochilidées, in the Traité d’ornithologie, and, in greatest detail, in the Compléments de Buffon, where this most prolific of trochidologists reviews the “variants” of “la jacobine” that over the years had been classed as distinct species.
Lesson’s classification, in which these hummingbirds formed the “13th Race,” was rendered into English in its entirety in the Penny Cyclopaedia of 1843. The translator, for reasons unstated, transformed the feminine and female “jacobines” into male and masculine “jacobins.”
By the time John Gould began the publication of his famous Monograph of the Trochilidae at the end of that decade, the name Jacobin seems to have become the standard in English works — always the masculine form, without the tell-tale terminal “e.”
Jobling, in an entry covering cuckoos and pigeons and, yes, hummingbirds, tells us that
the terms Jacobin and Dominican [are] applied as epithets to pied birds whose plumage mirrored the black and white vestments, hoods and cloaks of the Jacobin or Dominican friars.
It’s not as good a story as the wild and ignorant imaginings of childhood, and in the case of the hummingbird, it’s not quite right, either.
Next time someone tells you the bird is named for a monk, you can gently correct them. And if you want, you can join me in calling them jacobinesses.