Proposals for an Etymology of the Word “Eagle”


While working on a project which involves etymological research, this writer found himself thinking more and more on the origin of the word “eagle”.  It was not really that this bird had any immediate importance, but that the word bore a resemblance to another, for which no word origin had been found.

(Before going any further, the more seriously-inclined reader is advised that this article makes some concessions to the general public, with the hope of having this more pleasant to read.  The professional may laugh at the paltry resources at our disposable, but a look might still be in order, skipping the preamble, if time is of the essence.)

Now, in questions of etymologies, there are those issues that are settled, and those that remain obscure.  Such is the Indo-European root of “eagle”.  We prefer not to have such obscurity; this is not a bat out of hell.

Our curiosity became even more piqued when we found a Persian etymology which gave an unsubstantiated relationship between the words “eagle” and the Latin for water, aqua.

Others are entitled to their fantastic opinions as much as this writer is to his, or said another way, we believe ourselves to fanciful reveries as much as any other etymologist – not that the word “reverie” should have a negative connotation.  Here we present what we know, and what we surmise.

Older browsers, or those with insufficient fonts, may not render this document correctly.  Time permitting, some images may be added to let affected readers see the words that otherwise are not visible.


In the belief that more can be contributed on the topic of the etymology of the word eagle, and that the idea that it can possibly be traced to (dark) water leaves unanswered questions, in an essay interspersed with some humour and historical comment, it is shown that there are three ways that the word could have been derived, and that one of these could explain the connection between the colour of the aquila, the fluid aqua, and the colour aquilus.

Basic Rules Followed

After the need to be logical, our cardinal rule in etymology, also used by others (although by whom, we have not taken note of), is to ignore the literal value of vowels, as in the Semitic languages, or the old English irregular verbs, such as sing, sang, sung.  (Rule 1: ru. 1).  The vowels will thus be shown with “-v-“.  In most cases, roots will be monosyllabic.[1]

The second step is to find consonants in the same group, i.e. sibilants, gutterals (Rule 2, ru. 2) and to consider a switch between satem and centum forms (Rule 3, ru. 3).

The final major rule, especially when reference material is limited, is to consider the possibility of metathesis. (Rule 4, ru. 4)

The above can involve prefixes, suffixes, elimination of components. and infixes, In the case of the latter, we refer especially to the nasals. We will call this ru. 5, and applies to what is technically Extended forms, that is, addition of a new letter, we group under suffix, as we do with the expressive, which calls for doubling a letter. Our source lists e-grade and o-grade forms, we place this under our ru1, -v-, valid under the Theory of Sonant Coefficients [Charles S. Halsey, An Etymology of Latin and Greek, [Boston: Ginn & Co., 1889], p. ix; henceforth ELG.) We ignore lengthened and shortened forms, this is a question of vowel pronunciation. A nice trick is to consider a variant form anything which does not fit into the above.  Here, we have explicitly mentioned metathesis, which we have upgraded to ru. 4.

Rule 0 (zero) is to use Occam’s Razor when there is no need to apply the above.

The rest is based on imagination applied to foreknowledge.

The Eagle is not a Duck!

The original task at hand was to find an etymology for a Russian word, Аклей (approximate pronunciation: ah-GLAY).

The definition given, in lieu of a translation,  was “species of duck in the Siberian region”.

Rule 0 gave us nothing, so a search is made, let us say, in a parallel universe.

Applying ru. 1, we have -v-KL-v-, by ru. 2, a potential -v-GL-v-.  “Eagle” is of the same format: v-GL-v-.

There is just a little problem: there should be something in common between the two birds.

An Aviary with “A”

 Our research had already sent us on, shall we say, a wild goose chase, to obtain information about the word “albatross”.  In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner its death resulted in punishment, but who knows, when at war with someone, their words are banned like the term French Fries during the First Iraq War. It so happens that the origin of this word is supposed to be Portuguese alcatraz (pelican) from Arabic al-ghaTTas, غَطّاس ال, meaning white-tailed sea-eagle (American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, Indo-European Roots [Appendix], henceforth AHD)[2] or grebe (Dictionnaire Arabe-Français, Daniel Reig, Paris: Larousse, 1987, henceforth LDR).

Of course, the Roman legions loved the symbol of the eagle, as did the copy-cat dictators of Germany and Italy.  Other countries have the eagle as a symbol, too; but do not proliferate its likeness onto plaza-filling manifestations of enforced loyalty.  It really cannot be compared to so-called Islamo-fascism, as there is national cult leader, no cult practice. To be sure, in an international religion, the recognized leader bestrides borders.  Seriously, when is the last time anyone has seen a mass demonstration in favour of an Moslem leader?  There are presidents in the Americas who are much more successful,[3].  The supposed enemy does not represent Islam as a whole.  We only mention it because of an interesting parallel to be discussed below, which is more about the German version than anything else, but still ties the eagle in with both the Arabic and German language.

In spite of the preceding, it must be said that “eagle” is not an Anglo-Saxon word: the Germans have Adler, the origin of which is adel Aar, or noble eagle, where Aar itself is a poetical term.  It seems that the Nazis so misused the symbol of the eagle, that this writer knows of a brand of processed cheese named Adler, (somewhere on the American continent), which used the eagle symbol in the 1980s, but has now removed it as its trademark.[4]  Now, the eagle that the Germans use looks as if it is being choked, with its tongue hanging out, its feathers bedraggled., or  …

… All Wet

 As incorrectly mentioned in the Introduction, (this is being written in the age of the accusations of “false news”, but it was just an error out of the author’s enthusiasm), our curiosity was piqued when it was found that a nexus was theoretically established between the eagle and water (on  p. 14 of Ali Nourai, An Etymological Dictionary of Persian, English, and other Indo-European Languages [5]). Our real problem is that the root of “eagle” seemed to go back no further than the Romans, with their word aquila, faithfully maintained in the Italian language, slightly modified in Spanish to águila..  Now water, in these two languages is, aqua and agua respectively.  We were happy to see that Dr. Nourai did not claim the aqua – aquila connection as a fact.  It would have seemed like proclaiming as truth that dogma comes from dog, jackal from Jack, or bittern (the bird) from bitter.  All false! This kind of reasoning went out near the end of the 19th Century.[6]

The idea that the word aquila, the immediate root of eagle, is water, has both proponents and detractors.  This was found under “aquiline” at,  where it is admitted that a souce called  Etymologicum Magnum disagrees about the connection between water and black.

Black?  Now where did that come from?  The Latin aquilus, translated as “swarthy” in John C. Traupman’s New College Latin & English Dictionary. [We also have Lewis & Short’s, but we’ve saved that for further below.]  We are expected to believe that the eagle is so called, because water is black.  The closest we could get to that idea is that there was a type of military group operating in Iraq called Blackwater, and connecting military with the eagle symbol …, but this is clearly irrelevant. More relevantly, there are blackwater rivers.

So, assuming that there is a connection, we have really gone further back than aquila, we’ve gone to water, aqua, as the root. A reference under akwa in Nourai, partially taken, according to references given, from a Collins Webster Dictionary, purports that the Latin word aqualius meant “water (dark) colored bird, eagle”.  This information was then checked with the Etymology Online site referenced 2 paragraphs above, and found to match, for which reason it might be said to be public knowledge among specialists.

There is no entry for aqualius, either in LEL: A Latin-English and English Latin Dictionary for the Use of Schools, Charles Anthon, [New York: Harper & Row, 1873]; or in Lewis and Short’s New Latin Dictionary [New York: Harper & Bros., 1891]. In the latter, under aquila, we read that the the origin is from aquilus, because of its common colour. We read that aquilus is a rare word, of unknown origin, hence, there is no claim that it is related to water. (pp. 148, 9).  This would make aqualius the rarest of the rare, something out of the Age of Aquarius, where we never know what they are smoking.

We did try to come up with some ideas. Using one’s imagination, one might imagine using a black pool as a mirror, or looking down a well, where the sun does not reach the surface of the fluid.  Nevertheless, to consider water as having anything but the colour of the sky or the ocean, unless muddied or polluted, seems far-fetched, and an insult to a bird held in high regard.

So, we say that the theory must be all wet.  Tying that in with our comments related to Islam, the Arabic for eagle is nasr,  نسر, (according to Georg Krotkoff, Langenscheidts Taschenwörterbuch Arabisch, Berlin, 1976).  To those versed in 20th Century history, this word might bring to mind Abdel Gamel Nasser, but his name is of a completely different root, Arabic having more than one “s” sound:نصر,  (this word gives meanings of positive connotations).  Another difficulty is the popularity of the word: it is not even in the LRD, and the first translation given in Krotkoff’s, and elsewhere (R. Correinte, Diccionario Arabe-Español), is “vulture”.  Eagle or vulture, the form of the word reminds this writer of Old Norse were distinguished from other Germanic languages by words ending in “r” immediately after another consonant .  This leaves, without the “r”, a hypothetical “nas”, by a reduplication, nass, German for wet, which brings us back to water!   Taking a closer look at that word’s origins, we see that it is “na ʐʐi”, which again shows, by a strange twist of fate, a coincidental intertwining of the eagle, water, and fascism.

(The truth about “nas” is that it became “nose”, the one that is needed to track down the true roots, like a hog sniffs out truffles.)

No to Fascism!

You might know what they say, that under that system, the trains ran on time.  What is not said, is that this was primarily for military reasons.  In case of military necessity, the schedule was changed.  All very legal!

Here we come to the serious part of this article – not that, except for our facetiousness, the information provided previously was not in accordance with books of reference created by learned individuals.  It’s just that we believe that the arguments presented up to now don’t hold water, although one of ours is still wet – without the connotation of the last paragraph in the preceding section!

First, we argue: if  “albatross” can be derived from a word meaning sea-eagle, while having little in common except a hooked beak, and possibly soaring flight, at a time in history when one’s vocabulary was limited, might not even a duck and an eagle have had similar roots?


Upon examining the word “soar”, we get a non-expected (and unattested) etymology of ex + aurare (from Vulgar Latin the 2nd component from aura, air, breath, root we-, with an Old Norse root, vængr, which gave English the word  “wing”). Using ex + aura, by dropping the final “e” and making substitutions for the 1st vowel, and making the r to l transformation, axaul is obtained, then, after dropping the “s”, as do some Mediterranean speakers, we have akaul-, which could give us aquila, by vowel substitution and suffixing.

In the Sky

The root for sky, another Old Norse word, from a possibly common Germanic source, skewja (AHD), generates this: while dismissing the “s” as above, yet, in an attempt at its pronounciation, an initial vowel is added, cf. statio, stationis in Latin, estación in Sp. The Ger. “j” is “y”, often represented by “ll” in Sp.  This gives ekewlla, > ekoula, > aquila, following the same procedure with vowel substitution as in the preceding paragraph.

It seemed to us that it was the sky, and not the water on the earth, where the origins of the word “eagle” should be found.

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s …

A Cloud!  This is our third idea.  Perhaps one of them is the correct one.  Maybe they are somewhat related. If a semi-literate person functions on a vocabulary of less than 1000 words, the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary is overly rich.

“Cloud” is from one of the roots “gel-“. Applying a prefix, -v-, we get “igel”, correcting the spelling, “eagle”.  Incidently, the above root has “claw” as a derivative.  All in the family. (Source, AHD).

Cloud 2.  We don’t get as far as Cloud 9.  We try for the German Wolke, which has an archaic English Word, “welkin”, meaning sky, from a root meaning sky or cloud.  The Proto-Indo-European root is welk-, meaning wet. AHD does not provide much information, so we go elsewhere, Duden’s Herkunftswörterbuch, revised by Drosdowski, et. al, Mannheim: Duden, 1963.  It suggests that Wolke means “the mosit one”, i.e. the rain-bearer.

Here we suggest just thinking about the meanings of clouds.  By emphasizing the idea of holding water, we refer to dark clouds, hence, we get the cloud-colour, and can apply it to the eagle.  Our transformation to eagle from welk– is by the following: treat “w” as a semi-consonant, or as a potential vowel, as in Hebrew and Arabic, in which case we get -v—v-lk. We could consider dropping the initial consonant, or merging the double vowel just rendering -v-lk.  By metathesis, we obtain -v-kl, by reduction, and by substitution of a new vowel, ikl, changing the guttural, igl, adjusting the spelling, eagle.

Why “Sky” Scores

We have presented three ideas, all involve, let us say, looking at the sky, the place where eagles soar.  We are not overly happy with the idea that the eagle is a dark bird, because the sky just might happen to be covered in clouds portending rain, but it allows us to give a possible explanation for how the idea of “dark” entered the discussion.

Had we more etymological resources at our disposal, we would want to look at an interesting thing about the three letters combined to spell a word like sky.  In Danish, one of the at least three homonyms means “cloud”. Therefore, if the Danish word and the English word have the same etymology, we reinforce the idea of the colour of (dark) clouds in the sky and the feathers of the raptor.


We are well aware of the dangers involved in making assumptions without additional proof.  Consider that the German word Igel is hedgehog.  That word is supposed to be related to Greek echinos, εχῑνος, and the Russian osh, ёж , with which there seems to be nothing in common.  It is not so much that the rules presented at the beginning of this article cannot be applied, but that there is no elegance in adding the “l” suffix. O, Meg! – osh!


Stay away from hedgehogs, and etymolgies that are politically all wet! Our solution is in the heavens.  Try [reaching for the] “sky”!

March 12, 2017

© 2017, Paul Karl Moeller


[1] Two quick samples of 100 words each gave 56 in the first, and 81 in the second.  One author claimed that all roots are monosyllable. [Halsey, further below.] .

[2] Our copy of the AHD shows a nice picture of the wandering albatross, with a wingspan of 11 feet (3+ metres).

[3] Plaza – fillers, but not fascists:  the Roman Pontiff is best adapted to the description, but his followers are not bound together as under dictators.  The Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuelan president Chavez had a certain international following, but nothing like Hitler and Mussolini, or Stalin.  The latter’s style is inherited in North Korea, but its presidet is not known to have an international following.  The concept of the Axis of Evil lumps some of America’s enemies together, but there was never a meeting of their leaders, as there was of Hitler-Mussolin, Hitler-Horthy, or Hitler and Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

[4] Although highly stylized, if we remember correctly, it still looked reminiscent of the bad old days. As an aside, supposedly a factory by the name of Gebrüder Wiedemann made the first process cheese in Germany under the name of Adler [German language] in 1922.

[5] [n.d.], a .pdf document, EtymologicalDictionary-persian-english.pdf, at

[6] “…. Etymologists, preceeding often not upon any well-ascertained general principles, but upon superficial resemblance of words, and even roaming off in wild excursión of fanciful associations have produces such results as to bring the study into deserved condemnation.” ELG,  p. iv.

%d bloggers like this: