Sure, we have all heard of a peacock, but did you know that there are peahens, as well?
A cock, of course, is a rooster or male chicken, and a hen is a female chicken. Cock
and hen are also applied to the names of other domestic birds to distinguish between sexes. In
the case of the peacock, the name for the male of the species has come to refer, now, to males and females of the
species. The term peahen is not used very much today; nor is the modern term peafowl.
The word peacock actually derives
from Old English péa “peacock”, and the –cock (or –hen) was added
during the Middle English period in order to distinguish between males and females, as mentioned above. The
Old English form comes from Latin pavo “peacock”. The peacock was a native of India,
but it was domesticated and then taken to the West by traders. The Romans probably took it to Britain,
where their name for the bird was adopted and changed by the Anglo-Saxons. The Latin word is thought to
come from Greek taos “peacock”.
There have been many different forms of the word in English: pecok, pekok, pecokk,
peacocke, peocock, pyckock, poucock, pocok, pokok, pokokke,
and poocok, among others. By the late 17th century it seems to have taken on its current
form. The earliest example of the word in writing comes from about 1300: “F[o]ure
and xxti wild ges and a poucok” (“Four and twenty wild geese and a peacock”). By
the late 14th century Chaucer was using the word to refer to people who strutted and preened ostentatiously, as
the peacock was perceived to do: “And yet as proud a pekok can he pulle.” Interestingly,
the term “proud as a peacock” is still used to this day. Keats spoke of the peacock in his
poem Lamia, from 1812: “Eyed like a pea~cock, and all crimson barr’d.” George
Eliot uses the peacock to refer to a showy person (1866): “How came he to have such a nice-stepping long-necked peacock
for his daughter?“
the Spanish came to the New World and first saw the turkey, the only other animal that the turkey resembled, to them, was
the peacock, so the Spanish word for turkey is pavo, coming from Latin pavo “peacock”.
If you know what a turkey looks like, with its large display of tail feathers, you can probably understand why the
Spanish thought turkeys resembled peacocks. Peacocks were also eaten like chicken, and the fact that turkey
was also found to be pretty tasty might have influenced the Spanish term for the turkey.
There is also an astronomical constellation called Pavo or The
Peacock. There are other animals with the word peacock in their names, as well, such as the peacock
fish, so named because of its brilliant coloring of red, blue, green and white; and the peacock butterfly,
which has eye-like spots similar to those on the tail feather of the peacock. There is also peacock copper,
which is iridescent, showing greens and blues when moved in the light.
In India, the peacock is treasured as the national bird, and it lives wild there and
in Sri Lanka. The standard peacock which most of us see in the United States is called an India blue.
There is also a black shouldered variety, which is similar to the India blue except for, as you might expect, black
shoulders. The male peacock is about the size of a turkey, with a long train of large feathers.
When trying to attract a female, the male erects the train of feathers into a huge fan shape. Females
are not as brightly colored as males and do not have the long train of feathers. It is thought that the
remarkable colors and patterns on the male peacock’s feathers served as camouflage in the brilliant colors of the tropical
rainforest, where it originated.
is a jungle peacock which is found in Burma, Malaysia and Java, and it is golden-green where the variety from India is blue.
White peacocks sometimes turn up in captivity, but they must not survive long in the wild, as they are not usually
seen there. Apparently their white plumage makes them too easily seen by predators.
You might be surprised to learn that the peacock
is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible and in ancient Greek plays. Since that far back it was appreciated
as a beautiful animal and a display of wealth. The taxonomical name of the Indian peacock is Pavo cristatus
(cristatus=crested), and the jungle peacock is Pavo muticus (muticus=beardless).