Why is a secretary bird called a secretary bird?

There seems to be no one answer to this question nor to the origins of  its Latin name, Sagittarius Serpentius. Sagittariusnaturally makes one think of the Greek mythological centaur with his token bow, and Serpentius of course of a snake. An unusual combination one might say. To make matters more interesting, the bird forms its own exclusive family: Sagittariidae under the order of Accipitriformes (where other raptors are found).

So why the Latin name and why The Secretary? Well, interestingly while I was researching, I found that different languages give different explanations, some shared with other languages but others quite unique.

Here are my findings:

 In English an explanation of Sagittarius is offered by looking back to the 18th century Dutch natuaralist, Arnout Vosmaer, who decided that the gait of the bird was similar to that of an archer’s. However, it is ambiguous as to whether he had in mind the gait of a human archer or that of the centaur, Sagittarius… Secretarius on the other hand, refers to the claim that farmers domesticated these birds with the intent to train them to guard the crops, “The Secretary of the Crops” so to say. These interpretations are unique to the English language and are not shared by others.


Skipping to Italian: its common names (as in all the Latin languages) are The Serpent or The Secretary: the justification for the previous is due to the fact that they hunt snakes; while Sagittarius is due to the feathers on the bird’s head which look like the bows of an archer. An alternative offered by some involves blaming the French for their butchering of the Arabic pronunciation of “saqr-et-tair” which means “hunting  bird”.


Passing on to Portuguese which differs from Italian in their interpretation of the feathers on the back of their heads- the resemblance here is not to that of arrows, but to that of quills, resulting in the name The Secretary. In addition, many have decided that the “the real meaning” behind Sagittarius is due to the corruption of the Arabic “saqr-et-tair” (this time no blame afforded to the French).


The Spanish however side with the Italians in their opinion of Sagittarius, but offer their own take on the origin of The Secretary: apparently, the grey body, the black feet and the feathers hold familiarities with how British secretaries looked like at the time. All I can say to this is that British secretaries must have looked rather funny…


In Russian, like in Portuguese, the quill-like similarity of the its feathers resulted in the origin of The Secretary, yet offers no explanation of the other names.


The French opt for the Arabic corruption of “hunting bird” which originated in the French language and then was passed on to the vernacular of others. Serpentarius is logically related to its taste in snakes. 


“Karani tamba” is ambiguous in Swahili. Using Google translate (due to my lack of Swahili skills) it means either The Giraffe’s Clerk, The Tail’s Employee, The Turtle of Carnival, and the one which popped up the most: The Cretan Harp. These various names depended on which language “Karani tamba” was translated into. Upon asking a Kenyan, however the answer that I received was that the name meant nothing whatsoever.

Photo credits: Harriet Alice Taberner

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