Fowl Play

I came across an interesting mistranslation recently (well, I come across quite a few around Sicily, but you get used to the more ordinary ones after a while).

I was admiring one of the many amazingly well-preserved frescoes at the Villa Romana del Casale, when one of the information signs mentioned the characters in the fresco in question hunting volatiles.

I knew straight away that this must be a false friend, but wasn’t sure exactly what word the translator meant, or what Italian word had confused them. It seemed from the context like they meant prey, but I looked at the original Italian to check, realising as I was doing so that I didn’t know the Italian for prey (it’s not a word that comes up every day).

The Italian word was volatili, so it was easy to see why someone might assume the English translation was volatiles. I wondered if it meant prey. It seemed like a bit of an odd fit, but it might make sense at a stretch. I mean, any animal actively being hunted is going to be a little volatile.

But I looked it up, and it’s a little more specific. It can mean fowl in general, or specifically (as in this case), wildfowl (i.e. wild birds hunted by humans). And I think that’s wonderfully appropriate. If you’ve ever had an encounter with a cranky chicken or goose, you can attest that fowl can be volatile creatures at the best of times.

Of course all this made we wonder about the English word fowl. Could it be related to the concept of volatility too? Maybe, I thought, it’s linked to the word foul; the idea being that these are foul, cantankerous beasts.

Alas, no. Fowl is derived from the Old English fugel, the word for bird in general. Fowl was gradually taken over by the word bird, coming to mean barnyard hen or rooster by the late 16th century, with other farmyard birds added to the meaning over time.

Now that I’ve learned of the word volatili though, I’m all for renaming fowl to volatiles. There’s precedent for it too: volatile is related etymologically to flying (volare in Italian and voler in French, for example), based on the idea that something volatile is fleeting and might fly away at any moment. And in Middle English, volatiles referred to all flying creatures.

It’d make sense for particularly angry geese at the very least.

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