Monday, July 02, 2007


Sturdy is a plain, blue-collar type of word. It evokes images of vigor, robustness, hardiness, strength, and solidity.

That’s why it’s surprising to learn that in its long history, it has also meant giddy, dazed, reckless, ruthless, cruel, rebellious, obstinate, and surly. It was also the name of a brain disease in sheep and cattle.

Even stranger is the putative origin of the word, though no one seems to be absolutely certain. Some authorities say that it comes from the Latin word meaning thrush: turdus. This is because in the early days of its existence, it meant thoughtless or feather-brained. It reflected a French proverb, “drunk as a thrush.” The idea was that if a bird eats fermented fruit, it will act drunk; giddiness and recklessness will follow.

“The only birds I see are a few sad survivors of a covey of partridges and thrushes, which conduct themselves so strangely that the foresters assert that they are tipsy. ‘As drunk as a thrush’ is a proverb here.” [Charles Dickens, Household Words: A Weekly Journal, p. 308]

Other words coming from the Latin turdus include turdiform (having the form or appearance of a thrush), turdine (belonging to the sub-family Turdinae of true thrushes), and turdoid (akin to a thrush).

Note that these words have nothing to do with the vulgar word turd, which derives from the Old English tord, excrement.

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