Posted by: Didapper PJ4 DEC 2013
Early ornithologists had a habit of using obscure adjectives when naming new-found species. In particular, they got carried away when naming birds that exhibited a predominant colour. As a result, there are species whose names include words such as berylline (light blue), cerulean (sky blue), cinereous (ashy), citrine (light olive), ferruginous (reddish brown), flammulated (reddish), fulvous (dull yellow), glaucous (pale greyish), hoary (greyish), ochraceous (orange-yellow), olivaceous (olive-green), plumbeous (lead-coloured), roseate (rose-coloured), rufescent (tinged with red), rufous (reddish), russet (reddish brown) and verditer (blue-green).
But my favourite avian hue is isabelline, which describes a pale greyish-brownish-yellowish colour. It is used in the names of a bush-hen, a wheatear and a shrike, but otherwise has hardly been seen since the 19th century.
The adjective is almost certainly derived from the name Isabella. But which Isabella? British folklore says it originated with Isabella, Archduchess of Austria and daughter of Philip II of Spain. When her father laid siege to Ostend in 1601 Isabella supposedly vowed not to change her underwear until the city was taken. Unfortunately for her, the siege lasted three years and she had to wear the same grubby nether garments until they developed an unsavoury hue.
However, this story cannot be true because the word isabelline had already been used in an inventory of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe in 1600. Instead, the word may originate with an earlier royal Isabella.
Related words in French, German, Italian and Spanish have a similar folk etymology but in all cases refer to the long siege of Granada by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. The siege ended in January 1492, pulling the plug on 780 years of Moorish control in the Iberian peninsula. Perhaps it was the Castilian Isabella who got her knickers into a sordid state.