Auk, words of a feather

Words about words

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway


Illustration: Public domain
This painting by Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935), Scottish artist and bird illustrator, depicts “The Great Auk surrounded by its relatives.”

Auk is the name of a family of web-footed diving birds of the far north, characterized by being mostly black, white, and gray in color, and having short legs, tail, and wings. The Auk family includes the Guillemot, the Puffin, the Razor-bill, the Little Auk, and the Great Auk, driven to extinction by humans in the mid-19th century.

The word auk comes from the Old Norse álka, preserved in the modern Swedish alka and the Danish and Norwegian alke. In English, it first appeared in print in 1580 in “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,” an instructional poem by English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580). The line mentioning the word reads: “At fortune so auke: Good husbandry rowseth himselfe as a hauke.”


M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.