owl /aʊl/

One of my favorite bands at the moment is called Owl City, a project from a young guy from Owatonna, Minnesota, called Adam Young. Best described as bright, breezy synth-pop, Owl City’s current album release, Ocean Eyes, is downloading a storm at iTunes and playing regularly on my iPod.

The band name is not, as I originally hypothesized, the nickname for Owatonna (a reasonable guess, I think, considering the common /aʊ/ sound at the beginning of owl and Owatonna) but from an incident in Adam’s second grade when a pet owl got loose on his classroom.

Followers of the Word Guy on Twitter will have noticed that for some months, the web-based version of my page uses a icon of an owl rather than a real-life image of me. This is in part because I can’t find a really good picture of me that makes me look suave, sophisticated, and debonair; most seem to catch me either half-asleep or looking like an accident at a plastic surgery clinic.

Twitter Owl

Twitter Owl

The owl, therefore, plays a vital role in propping up my ego and providing a symbolic representation of my persona. There will be those folks out there who understand the relationship between the owl, the goddess Athena, and wisdom, whereas others might be more inclined to go with the more mundane “he likes Owl City” hypothesis. Hey, whatever floats your symbolic boat!

The word owl is very old and used in many cultures. The OED traces records of its use back to 725 CE where it appears in the form ule, which has many forms over the years such as oule (4th-6th CE), owele, (5th CE), owlle, (5th-6th CE), owle (5th-7th CE), oole (7th CE), up to the modern owl.

The Old English ule is thought to have derived from the Proto-Germanic *uwwalon, which is suggested to be an onomatopoeic word after the sound made by owls.

Glancing back at Athena’s owl, the Greeks used the word γλαύξ (glaux) for little owl, and one of Athena’s many epithets is γλαυκώπις, glaukopis, which means “bright-eyed” or “shining eyes,” which clearly references one of the defining features of the owl – its eyes.

I have an Athenian owl. It sits on my desk at home and has done for many years. I picked it up from a market in Athens – that and a small statuette of the Disk of Phaistos, a strange artifact that is covered on both sides by symbols that have not been found anywhere else except on this one item. The word underneath the owl, ΑΘΕ, is the Greek for Athena.

Athenia Owl Statuette

Athenia Owl Statuette

Mythologically speaking, the owl took on a more sinister role in England. The Barn Owl became associated with death, with William Wordsworth being quite happy to use it as an icon for doom. Screech owls were also seen as harbingers of death, and there was a custom of nailing owls to barn doors to ward off evil. Tough for owls, eh?


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