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The Bell Miner

How orthography and ornithology catalysed a new folk etymology

9 August 2015

Bell miner
A Bell Miner

The Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys) is an Australian bird belonging to the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). It lives in temperate rainforests of southeastern Australia, preferred habitats being woodlands with dense shrubby understorey, gullies near rivers and creeks, swamp gum woodlands, and even well-treed suburban areas and gardens.

Bell Miners live in colonies of 40-50 birds, although some can have as many as 200 members. The colonies are models of communal living: each has only a small number of breeding adults, which mate for life, while the rest chip in to help defend the nest and feed the young.

Bell miners mainly eat insects, nectar, and manna, but their favourite food is the sugary bell-like domes, known as “bell lerps”, secreted by tiny psyllids (jumping plant lice) that feed on the sap of eucalyptus leaves. Bell miners are highly protective of their food source, so much so that they've been implicated in abetting psyllid infestations and causing “dieback” in eucalypt forests. [1]

While there is much that is culturally and ecologically interesting about the Bell Miner, what is of particular interest to Spicks and Specks is its name. According to several sites on the Internet, Bell Miners were given their common name because of their habit of “mining” the bell lerps.

Gum leaves covered in bell lerp domes. One psyllid is just getting ready to secrete.
(photo from Craig Boase's Wild South East)

This etymology is cited at the Beauty of Birds, the Mount Eliza Association for Environmental Care, Flickr, and most notably at GrrlScientist's mystery bird at the Guardian in August 2012. GrrlScientist appears to get a significant portion of her scientific knowledge from Wikipedia, because the original source for all four was the Wikipedia article on Bell Miner.

Given their great fondness for the psyllid's sugary secretions, the picture of a Bell Miner assiduously tending its psyllids and “mining” their sugar domes without harming the insects is an engaging one, lending the etymology an undeniable ring of authenticity. Unfortunately it has no basis in fact. “Bell” does not refer to the bell lerps, nor does “miner” refer to the mining of the sugar domes.

To understand the actual origin of the “common name” of the Bell Miners, and how it gave rise to such a convincing “folk etymology”, we need to make a somewhat convoluted excursion through two different aspects of the English language: the role of normative spellings, and the vagaries of ornithological naming. We'll start with the ornithological naming.

The Bellbird

It's a convenient fiction that the “common names” of avian species are ordinary or vernacular English names. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the Bell Miner is a good illustration of this. The Bell Miner was not always known as the Bell Miner. In fact, it was first known by the more poetic name of Bellbird. That's the name by which it's still known to the average Australian, that's the name that is enshrined in Australian place names like “Bellbird Creek”, and that's the name that is familiar to generations of schoolchildren who learnt a poem called Bell-birds, published by the poet Henry Kendall in 1867. The first half this poem runs:

As the poem suggests, the bell-birds were named for their bell-like calls. Samples of their call can be found here link to song file and here link to song file.

Notwithstanding the aptness of the name, ornithologists don't appear to have been very happy with “bell-bird”. The reason is probably related to ornithological naming practices. Ornithologists feel extremely uncomfortable when “common names” don't line up with the scientific taxonomy. When they come across such names they tend to be overcome with an uncontrollable urge to change them. Were ornithologists to have their way, the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) would be renamed the American Thrush, the Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) would be renamed the Willy Fantail, and the Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) would be called something else (maybe the Tibicen, or perhaps a kind of butcherbird, since previous suggestions like Piping Crow-shrike, Flute-bird, and Bell Magpie never caught on). It's only entrenched popular naming and dogged opposition to drastic changes that prevents ornithologists from remoulding common bird names in their own image.

Renaming tends to be easiest with species outside of English-speaking areas, where ornithologists can give full rein to their inclinations, but even species in English-speaking areas are not immune. Despite the existence of an established English-language name -- it was so well established that even John Gould gave “Bell-bird” as his first choice in 1848 -- the arguments for tinkering with “Bellbird” appear to have been too powerful to resist.

From the ornithological point of view there are at least two problems with “Bellbird”.

First, there are not one but several types of bird around the world known as “bellbirds”. All of them are noted for their calls, although the bell sound differs significantly between species. They are:

Three-wattled Bellbird White Bellbird Bearded Bellbird Bare-throated Bellbird New Zeland Bellbird Crested Bellbird
Bellbirds from around the world

Having a number of overseas species sharing the name “bellbird” is disturbing enough, but the real problem is the endemic Crested Bellbird. Were Oreoica gutturalis to be allowed to share the name Bellbird with Manorina melanophrys, that would imply that the two domestic species belonged to the same family, or even the same genus. This was clearly unacceptable.

Bell miner
A Noisy Miner

A second consideration is that the Bellbird did not share the same common name with the other members of its genus -- namely, the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) and the Yellow-throated Miner (Manorina flavigula). (Older classifications recognise a third species, the Black-eared Miner or Manorina melanotus). This was most untidy.

The only solution for any ornithologist worth his salt is to call the Bellbird a type of “miner”. Changing the name to “Bell Miner” would highlight the taxonomic association with the other “miners” and break the unwarranted connection with the Crested Bellbird and overseas bellbirds. This is precisely what was done.

How and when this was done is less clear. The name Bell Miner does not appear to be of recent vintage and appears to date back to the 19th century. But while the details surrounding the adoption of Bell Miner are not clear, the motivation is transparent. “Bell Miner” was concocted by ornithologists for taxonomic reasons and did not emerge from ordinary popular usage.

What the astute observer will notice, however, is that while this contrived name retains the “bell” from “bellbird”, “bell” no longer fills quite the same function. Of course it is possible that a “bell-bird” might be a bell-shaped bird, a bird with a bell-shaped appendage, or a bird with the habit of ringing bells, but by its nature “bell-bird” is most likely to be associated with vocalisations. No such assumption can be made, however, about a “bell miner”. The name “bell miner” could be associated with just about anything bell-like in sound, shape, or form. Like bell lerps, for instance.

Before we move on to the origin of the name “miner”, there's a postscript to the naming of the “bell-birds”. In the most recent, fourth edition of Howard and Moore's Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, the two other members of the Oreioicidae (Australo-Papuan bellbirds) have now been renamed to indicate their taxonomic status. The former Rufous-naped Whistler (Aleadryas rufinucha) has been rechristened the Rufous-naped Bellbird (song available here link to song file), and the Crested Pitohui (Ornorectes cristatus) has been renamed the Piping Bellbird (song available here link to song file). All this is in keeping with the tendency to “tidy up” common names. Fortunately both species have reasonably bell-like calls.

The miners

As we saw, the Bellbird was renamed to show its membership of a group of birds called “miners”. Given the name, it might be reasonable to assume that the “miners” (or at least one of them) might have some kind of relationship to “mining”. In fact, there is a totally unrelated group of birds in South America, the genus Geositta, which are also known as “miners” due to their habit of building tunnels for nesting. The most widespread of these is the Common Miner (Geositta cunicularia), which digs a tunnel of up to 3 metres into earth banks or sand dunes and creates a chamber at the end of this to lay its eggs.

Bell miner
A Common Miner

The miners of Australia don't engage in any such mining-like behaviour, but this hasn't stopped people from advancing other explanations for the name. One of these, which found its way into the Wikipedia page on the Noisy Miner before being deleted, noted that “a distinctive black head resembling a miner's cap gives rise to its name”.

The European discovery of Indian birds

The actual origin of the name lies elsewhere. To find it, we must first step back to colonial India. When Europeans (mainly British) came to India in the 17th and 18th centuries, they encountered different kinds of starling from what they were used to back home. These were larger than European starlings and some were prized as cage birds for their skill at mimicry. They were known in Hindi as मैना mainā ‘starling’, which was borrowed into English as early as 1769. [2]

For a long time there was no single way of spelling this word. People wrote it as they felt fit, resulting in a variety of 19th-century spellings like “minah”, “minor”, “minar”, and “miner”. The principle behind these spellings was that of representing the pronunciation roughly as it was heard.

If these spellings appear peculiar today, it's because a number of them reflect a sound change that took place in southern British English during the 18th century. This involved the disappearance of /r/ from any environment in which it wasn't followed by a vowel. Sounds spelt ‘er’ , ‘ur’ , ‘ar’ , ‘or’, and ‘ir’ in the middle of words turned into long vowels, and sounds written ‘-er’, ‘-ar’, and ‘-or’ at the end of words usually turned into the vague vowel known as schwa. Varieties of English that adopted this change in pronunciation are now called “non-rhotic”; those that preserve the /r/ are called “rhotic”.

This sound change led to a reinterpretation of the function of ‘r’ in spelling. In the middle of words it was seen as a sign of lengthening, and at the end of words it was interpreted as schwa. This is why many of the 19th-century spelling pronunciations of “mynah” end with an unpronounced ‘r’.

Colonial Australia

The stage now shifts to colonial Australia, where ornithologists discovered a species of bird that they first treated as a kind of “bee-eater” or “grackle” (a type of myna) (John Latham in 1801 [3]), and later as a “honey-eater” (John Gould 1865 [4]). In popular usage, however, as John Gould observed, settlers in Tasmania called this honey-eater a “miner” due to its perceived resemblance to the mynas of India. The similarity is apparent when the honey-eater in question, Manorina melanocephala, is compared with the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), which is now widespread in Australia. The first photo shows a Common Myna, the second shows the honey-eater.

Common myna Noisy miner
Photos courtesy of Mark David of Nature Stuff

Despite the existence of other local names such as Mickey Bird and Soldier Bird, for some reason (possibly Gould's mention of the name in his writings), ornithologists eventually adopted “miner” as the common name for this genus. However, this did not happen until quite late -- according to Gray and Fraser's Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide, the earliest use of the full name “Noisy Miner” for Manorina melanocephala dates back only to 1901.

Interestingly, this ornithological name kept the spelling “miner”, despite the fact that both “minah” and “mynah” were current during the 19th century and were used for both the miners and the bellbird. One conceivable motivation for adopting “miner” would have been to distinguish the two types of bird. The spelling “miner” would have encountered little resistance in Australia, which was a fortress of non-rhoticism. Until well into the 20th century, Australians continued to use ‘r’ to represent impressionistic colloquial pronunciations, without necessarily involving any actual /r/ sound. When authors wanted to represent the way people actually spoke, it was accepted practice to write “to go” as “ter go” or “talked and laughed” as "torked an' larft" [5]. This can still be found up to the present time.

But there are inherent problems with this “pronunciation-based” spelling. The first is that, while it may have looked fine to Englishmen or Australians, it makes less sense to speakers of other varieties of English where the letter ‘r’ is actually pronounced. Such rhotic varieties are spoken in places like Scotland, Ireland, regional areas of England, and much of the United States and Canada. For such speakers, there is an audible and meaningful difference in pronunciation between “myna” /ˈmaɪnə/ and “miner” /ˈmaɪnər/. The first could only be applied to the bird, the second, in ordinary pronunciation, would normally be used only in words like “minor” and “miner”.

The problem is not confined to rhotic speakers. Although it is generally understood that alphabetic systems are based on the equation of letters to sounds (often observed in the breach in English spelling), spellings have a propensity to become fixed, and in their fixity come to be regarded as invariant manifestations of words rather than direct representations of sound. Even in non-rhotic English, the old fluidity of spelling by which Hindi मैना mainā was spelt “minah”, "minor”, “minar”, or “miner”, eventually settled on “mynah”, and finally “myna”. In the world of fixed spellings, “miner” is tightly linked to the concept of “mining”, “minor” is tightly linked to the concept of “lesser” or “younger”, and “myna” or “mynah” is tightly linked to a type of bird. Once spellings are fixed, the older practice of using “miner” to represent the pronunciation /ˈmaɪnə/ in an ad hoc fashion is easily overlooked or forgotten. This is what has happened to the spelling “miner” for these honeyeaters. It is now difficult to see the word as related to anything other than mining, opening the way for “miner” to be interpreted in a completely different manner from what was originally intended.

To be fair, of course, the connection with the old meaning is not yet completely dead. There is still some awareness of the roots of “miner”, and some Internet sites are not fazed by the difference in spelling. But in general the spelling “miner” serves to distract contemporary English speakers from the intended meaning.

We have now reached the end of our convoluted journey to understand how the current naming of the Bell Miner came about. Despite blanks and areas of vagueness, the overall narrative is clear enough. To summarise:

This provided the soil for a new folk etymology to arise:

This new etymology does not appear to have started with Wikipedia. The contributor responsible for adding it to the site, one Apokryltaros (aka MrFink), claimed to have heard it in a Nature documentary on Australian wildlife.

While the above conditions are certainly sufficient for a new etymology to arise, there is one final condition that needs to be fulfilled if it is to take root. As long as knowledge of the original name persisted it would be difficult for any new etymology to gain credence. Anyone knowing the name “bellbird” would quickly see through the etymology, no matter how ingenious it appeared. It is thus necessary for the old name to be forgotten, ignored, or dismissed in order for the new etymology to be accepted.

Three scenarios for this suggest themselves, all partly related to a tendency to promote ornithological names at the expense of alternatives:

Whichever the reality is, it's ironic that a striving for greater scientific exactitude in naming should have resulted in the creation of a new and fanciful folk etymology.

For the record, the etymology has since been deleted from the Wikipedia article that propagated it, but it's still out there in the wild and is likely to remain in circulation as long as people find such explanations interesting and plausible.

(The entry for 'miners' in Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide by Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray, which describes the chronology of usage in some detail, can be found here.)

Addendum: The Misinterpretation of “bell” and “miner” in science around the world

Native speakers of English are not the only ones bamboozled by the spelling “miner”. Ornithological naming in both Italian and Chinese refers to the miners as a variety of “mining bird”. The Chinese and Italian names for the Australian “miners” are shown below, followed by the South American Common Miner for reference. Names are from Avibase and Chinese bird lists.

English and Latin Chinese 1 [6] Chinese 2 [7] Italian
Noisy Miner
(Manorina melanocephalus)
hēi-tóu kuàng-niǎo
‘black-headed mining bird’
hēi-é kuàng xī-mì-niǎo
‘black-fronted mining nectar-sucking bird’
Minatore chiassoso
‘noisy miner’
Yellow-throated Miner
(Manorina flavigula)
huáng-hóu kuàng-niǎo
‘yellow-throated mining bird’
huáng-hóu kuàng xī-mì-niǎo
‘yellow-throated mining nectar-sucking bird’
Minatore golagialla
‘yellow-throated miner’
Black-eared Miner (Dusky Miner)
(Manorina melanotis)
àn-sè kuàng-niǎo
‘dark-coloured mining bird’
hēi-ěr kuàng xī-mì-niǎo
‘black-eared mining nectar-sucking bird’
Minatore orecchie nere
‘black-eared miner’
Bell Miner
(Manorina melanophrys)
zhōng kuàng-niǎo
‘bell mining bird’
kuàng xī-mì-niǎo
‘mining nectar-sucking bird’
Uccello campanello australiano
‘Australian bell bird’
Common Miner
(Geositta cunicularia)
pǔtōng kuàng-què
‘common mining finch’
jué-xuē què
‘hole-digging finch’
Minatore comune
‘common miner’

The first Chinese world list, edited by the late Cheng Tso-Hsin but probably compiled by students under his charge, translates the names with exacting literalness. The “miner” becomes the ‘mining bird’ or ‘mineral bird’ (矿鸟 kuàng-niǎo), and the “bell” in Bell Miner is rendered as zhōng, a word referring to the large type of bell typically found in Buddhist temples, with the alternative meaning of ‘clock’. There is a Chinese word for a small tinkling bell, but the compilers haven't used it. A more accurate literal translation of the name (although not necessarily a suitable ornithological name) would have been 铃八哥 líng-bāgē 'small-bell myna'. The South American miners (actual burrowing birds) are differentiated as 矿雀 kuàng-què or ‘mining finches’, where què is a general term for small passerines such as sparrows, finches, and tits.

The second Chinese list, edited by Zheng Guangming, considerably improves the naming by using the word 吸蜜鸟 xī-mì-niǎo, literally ‘nectar-sucking bird’, the usual Chinese term for a honey-eater. However, in a nod to the English name, the miners still retain the Chinese character kuàng ‘mine, mineral’. The South American miner, on the other hand, has been given a completely new and appropriate name unrelated to mining.

The Italian name for both the Australian and South American miners is “minatore”, meaning quite literally ‘miner’. The Bell Miner escapes this fate because the Italian names would appear to be based on an earlier version of English naming which used Bellbird instead of Bell Miner.

Most other world bird lists avoid this kind of confusion by calling the Australian miners (including the Bell Miner) ‘honey-eaters’. The Japanese name of the Bell Miner is, for instance, スズミツスイ suzu mitsu-sui or ‘small-bell nectar-sucker’. This name pointedly uses the name for a small bell.

For comparison the Chinese and Italian names for three different kinds of bellbird are:

English and Latin Chinese 1 [6] Chinese 2 [7] Italian
Bearded Bellbird
(Procnias averano)
xū zhōng-què
‘bearded bell-finch’
xū zhōng-sǎn-niǎo
‘bearded bell-umbrella-bird’
Campanaro barbuto
‘bearded bell-ringer’
New Zealand Bellbird
(Anthornis melanura)
zhōng xī-mì-niǎo
‘bell nectar-sucking bird’
xīn-xī-lán xī-mì-niǎo
‘New Zealand nectar-sucking bird’
Uccello campanello della Nuova Zelanda
‘New Zealand bell bird'
Crested Bellbird
(Oreoica gutturalis)
guān zhōng-wēng
‘crested bell flycatcher’
guān zhōng-wēng
‘crested bell flycatcher’
Campanaro crestato
‘crested bell-ringer’

The first Chinese list uses the same term zhōng (meaning large bell or clock) for all three types of bird, differentiating them as 钟雀 zhōng-què ‘bell finch’, 钟吸蜜鸟 zhōng xī-mì-niǎo ‘bell honey-eater’, and 钟鹟 zhōng-wēng ‘bell flycatcher’ respectively.

The second Chinese list treats the genus Procnias as 钟伞鸟 zhōng sǎn-niǎo ‘bell-umbrella-bird’, where 伞鸟 sǎn-niǎo ‘umbrella-bird’ is common to all the cotingas. The New Zealand Bellbird becomes simply the New Zealand honey-eater. The Crested Bellbird is the same as the first Chinese list.

The Italian names are split between campanaro, a term meaning ‘bell-ringer’, and uccello campanello meaning ‘bell bird’.

World lists in other languages differentiate between the three types of bird in different ways. The Latin American bellbirds are given names meaning ‘cotinga’, ‘bell-bird’, and ‘araponga’. The New Zealand Bellbird is treated as a ‘bell-bird’, ‘honey-eater’, or ‘makomako’. The Crested Bellbird is known variously as a ‘bell-bird’, a ‘thick-head (dikkop)’, or a ‘shrike-flycatcher’, among others.

Information about the Bell Miner is drawn from The Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Angus & Robertson 1999; Birds in Backyards; Graeme Chapman; Ask not for whom the bell miner tolls; and, of course, Wikipedia. The term ‘lerp’ is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘sugar’.
Belatedly I also managed to gain access to the Google Books version of Australian Bird Names : A Complete Guide by Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray, but it was too late to incorporate much of their material in the article.
Source is the Online Etymological Dictionary. The word मैना mainā is derived from Sanskrit मदन madanā 'delightful, joyful', which is related in a rather roundabout way to the English words mast, meaning 'fallen nuts, food for swine', and meat. In Supplementum Indicis Ornithologici, sive Systematis Ornithologiae by John Latham, 1801 (as per Wikipedia). In Handbook to the Birds of Australia by John Gould, London, 1865 (as per Wikipedia). Examples are from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in 1915 by the well-known novelist and poet C. J. Dennis. The text can be found at Gutenburg Books Australia. Birds of the World (Latin, Chinese and English Names) 2nd ed.
Cheng Tso-Hsin et al
Science Press 科学出版社
Beijing 2002
A Checklist on the Classification and Distribution of the Birds of the World
Chief Editor Zheng Guangmei
Science Press
Beijing 2002

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