Tag Archives: Alastair Ross


26 Jan

Penguins were of great interest to the early Antarctic explorers, but where does the word come from?
Alastair Ross,a medical student, went with William Speirs Bruce on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition as taxidermist. He made notes and a comprehensive log book on the birds they saw, particularly penguins. (W.S.Bruce.National Museum of Scotland, Box 5, File 53)
He too was interested in the derivation of ‘penguin’ and made quotes from “A Dictionary of Birds” by Alfred Newton (as cited by Hans Gadout in 1894).
There are 3 suggestions;
a) The word comes from the Welsh pengwyn “white head”. This is questioned—penguins don’t have white heads, there is no evidence of a Welsh discovery of the birds and anyway, it is thought unlikely that even if the Welsh did discover penguins, they would have persuaded English sailers to use the term.
b)”Penguin” derives from the Latin pinguis (fat). This is thought unlikely.
c) Apparently the word was first applied the the Great Auk of North America and a plausible theory is that the name is a corruption of “pin-wing” meaning that the bird had been pinioned (immobilised) and referring to its rudimentary wings. The Auk was seen in the 1500s and the name “pin-wing” was given to the birds in North and South America and, after this to the Southern penguins.
This seems a reasonable suggestion and as modern dictionaries throw no further light on the mystery, I am sticking to it.