concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon - IV by Richard Boyle
Lankan birds get Oxford recognition
Birds form the largest category of the fauna acknowledged in the
second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) as being
exclusively or closely associated with Sri Lanka. Some of the names
are familiar (devil-bird, sun-bird), while others are distinctly
alien (anhinga, tantalus). Only one - malkoha - bears a name derived
from Sinhala. This is a late entrant, to be included in the OED3.
Date of first use is provided in brackets.
Sinhala Ahikava. According to the OED2 it is "Any bird of the
genus Anhinga, especially the American snake-bird." The earliest
reference given in the dictionary is from Pennant's Indian Zoology
(1769:13/1): "The black-bellied Anhinga. We give it this epithet,
to distinguish it from an American species with a silvery belly.
This kind is found in Ceylon and Java . . . neck extremely long,
the bill straight, long and sharp-pointed." This bird is now
known as the Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster), commonly called
the snake-bird because of its mode of swimming with only its head
and long neck above water.
Sinhala Polkichcha. "An Indian bird, (Copsychus saularis),
also called Magpie-robin, sometimes extended to the genus Copsichus.
James Emerson Tennent is quoted from Ceylon (1859 : II. 254):
"The songster that first pours forth his salutation in the
morning is the dial-bird."
(1849). Sinhala Ulama. This is the only term common to both OED2
and the second edition of Hobson-Jobson (HJ-2). "b. The Brown
Owl of Ceylon (Syrnium Indrani)." Today, however, the name
ulama is generally applied to the Spot Bellied Eagle-Owl (Bubo nipalensis),
a large bird characterized by its distinctive black and white ear
The three illustrative
quotations given in the OED2 all come from English literature pertaining
to Sri Lanka. The earliest is by Charles Pridham from 'A Historical,
Political and Statistical Account of Ceylon and its Dependencies'
(1849: II. 737): "Devil's Bird
the wild and wailing
cry of the bird is considered a sure presage of death and misfortune."
by Tennent (1859 and (1876) are also given. However, I prefer the
following by Samuel Baker from 'Eight Years in Ceylon' (1854 :
217): "The name for the devil-bird is Gualama and so impressed
are the natives with the belief that a sight of it is equivalent
to a call to the nether world, that they sometimes die from sheer
fright and nervousness. A case of this happened to a servant of
a friend of mine. He chanced to see the creature sitting on a bough,
and he was from that moment so satisfied of his inevitable fate,
that he refused all food, and fretted, and died; as of course any
one else must do, if starved, whether he saw the devil-bird or not."
is this reference by Thomas Skinner from 'Fifty Years in Ceylon'
(1891:25): "I was awakened by the melancholy call of an owl,
named by the natives the Devil Bird, because its presence is considered
a certain precursor of death. It perched itself on the ridge-pole
of my cottage, about twelve feet above my head."
demon-bird (used prior to the mid-19th century) is included in the
OED2, but no connection is made with the devil-bird of Sri Lanka.
An early reference, but possibly not the first, is by John Davy
who writes in 'An Account of the Interior of Ceylon' (1821:424):
"We heard the cries of the demon-bird, or Ulama as it is called
by the natives. Perched in a neighbouring tree, it made loud and
hideous screams, conveying the idea of extreme distress. Its harsh
and horrid notes are supposed, like those of the screech-owl, to
be of evil omen, and a prelude to death or misfortune."
"[Sinhalese mal-koha, literally flower cuckoo, ultimately Sanskrit
mala, garland + koka, taxonym relating to kokila cuckoo] any of
several species of large, non-parasitic cuckoos of the subfamily
Phaenicophaeinae, having very long tails and colourful bills, and
found in the forests of South and South-east Asia."
reference in the forthcoming OED3 entry is once again by Pennant
(1769.6): "The red-headed Cuckoo . . . The Cingalese give this
species the name of Malkoha; it inhabits the woods, and lives on
fruits." Tennent (1859: I. 149) writes: "Phoenicophaus
pyrrhocephalus, the malkoha, is confined to the southern highlands."
to which the name malkoha is applied are: Blue-faced Malkoha (Phoenicophaus
viridirostris), Sinhala Watha Rathu Malkoha, the Red-faced Malkoha
(Phoenicophaus pyrrhocephalus), Sinhala Watha Nil Malkoha, and the
Sirkeer Malkoha (Phoenicophaus leschanaultii), Sinhala Patha-atikukula.
Sinhala Madi-muhuna. "Name for various birds exuding oil .
. . (b) a Frogmouth of Ceylon, Batrachostamus moniliger
This can be antedated, however, for Tennent (1859: I. 148)
notes: "Batrachostomus monoliger. The oil-bird; was discovered
amongst the precipitous rocks of the Adam's Peak range by Mr Layard."
The name frogmouth (1888) is recorded in the OED2.
gallinule (1785). Sinhala Laya Sudu Korawakka. The earliest reference
reads: "Red-tailed Gallinule
This species inhabits Ceylon."
This is the former name for the White-Breasted Water Hen (Amaurornis
phoenicurus). Gallinule - a little hen or chick - was the term used
by Gesner (1555) for the common Moorhen or Water Hen with reference
to its cocked tail and halting progress. When cocking the tail the
White-Breasted Water Hen reveals its red underside.
Sinhala Dam Kati Sutikka, Dam Sutikka, Lotenge Sutikka. "Any
bird of the passerine family Nectariniidae, which comprises small
birds with brilliant and variegated plumage, found in tropical and
subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Australia."
quoted in the OED2, there are many descriptive references from English
literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. For example, Tennent (1859:II.254)
notes: "The little gem-like sun-birds (the humming birds of
the East) quiver on their fulgent wings above the opening flowers."
is Constance Gordon Cumming, who provides an appealing description
in 'Two Happy Years in Ceylon' (1892: 414): "Still more
fascinating are the dainty little sun-birds, which, with long brush-like
tongue, capture insects, and also feed on nectar of flowers. Some
have maroon bands on the breast, others primrose-colour; they love
the fragrant pink oleander and scarlet hibiscus with glossy dark-green
foliage. The Singhalese call these dainty creatures 'Flower-honey
birds.' One of very brilliant plumage is distinguished as the tiny
sunbird, being only three and a half inches long. It is, however,
the lovely little purple sunbird is more common. Its head and throat
are of metallic green, shading into the glossy purple of back and
tail, while beneath each wing is a tuft of gold, displayed when
the dainty chirping creature is fluttering over flowers to extract
My final example
is by Bella Woolf, who states in How to See Ceylon (1914: 100):
"A sun-bird with long curved beak may be seen extracting honey
from a canna blossom."
The name sunbird
is applied to three different species in Sri Lanka - the Purple-rumped
sunbird or Dam kati Sutikka (Nectarinia zeylonica), the Purple sunbird
or Dam Sutikka (Nectarinia asiatica), and the Long-billed sunbird
(Loten's sunbird) or Lotenge Sutikka (Nectarinia lotenia).
(1769). Sinhala Battichcha. "One of a number of species of
Asiatic passerine singing birds, belonging to the general Orthotomus,
Prinia, Sutoria, etc., which stitch together the margins of leaves
with cotton, etc, so as to form a cavity for their nest. Originally
applied to a particular species (Motacilla Sutoria) of Pennant,
now variously called Orthotomus sutorius, Sutoria longicauda, or
S. sutoria of India and Sri Lanka."
from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given, although
Robert Percival writes in 'An Account of the Island of Ceylon' (1803:
299): "The tailor-bird is particularly remarkable for the art
with which it constructs its nest. The bird is of a yellow colour,
not exceeding three inches in length, and slender in proportion.
To prevent the possibility of its little nest being shaken down,
it contrives to attach it in such a manner to the leaves of the
tree, that both must stand or fall together. The nest is formed
of leaves which it picks up from the ground; and it contrives, by
means of its slender bill and some fine fibres, which it uses as
a needle and thread, to sew these leaves to those growing on the
tree with great dexterity. Hence it receives the name of the tailor-bird."
Sinhala Savulpenda Diyasana. "The pheasant-tailed Jacana, or
Water-pheasant, Hydrophasianus chirurgus, of India and Sri Lanka,
so-called from its ability to run over floating lotus leaves, etc."
There is no historical evidence for this term in the OED2, which
is why it remains undated.
Sinhala Lathuvakiya. "A genus of storks, including T. Ibis
(formerly erroneously identified with Ibis religiosa of Egypt; the
wood stork or wood ibis." The 1824 reference reads: "The
White-headed or Ceylonese Tantalus is the largest of the genus."
This is the former name for the beak-rattling Painted Stork (Mycteria
Promising poetry rising from social
by Premini Amerasinghe Review by Carl Muller
Language has two great classes: those that abound in grammatical
inflections and those completely destitute of them. It is this difference,
actually, that gives us the more ready adaptability to accept the
many forms of poetical composition. After all, poetry accommodates
itself readily to the laws of arrangements, sequence and the recurrence
of sound - rhythm, metre and rhyme. It is the ear that finally decides:
is it poetry or is it prose?
poetry is mostly unrestricted in the arrangement of words which
compose it. What it has done is resorted to a sort of metrical convenience
that has at times even inverted the licence of poetry. We have,
as a result, an abundance of consonances and a rich variety of terminations.
Actually, poverty of rhyme has been the greatest formal difficulty
in English poetical composition. Even Chaucer, you will remember,
lamented this in "Complaint of Mars and Venus".
And eke to
me it is a great penance
Sith rime in English hatch such scarcitie
To follow word by word, the curiositic It is this poverty in rhyme
that has led many of our own poets to improvise and this has developed
to an astonishing degree. It is, therefore, time to turn to Premini
Amerasinghe whose first book of poems, 'Kaleidoscope' gives us offerings
that stand out and make themselves known. Before I deal with them,
let me also add fuel to the fires of those who will go on making
poetry in their own style. Ben Jonson had a most unfavourable opinion
of rhyming verse. Milton condemned rhyme as "the invention
of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre"
and he congratulated himself on having, in 'Paradise Lost', set
the first example in English epic of avoiding "the jingling
sound of like endings".
I want to add that Premini has not rejected rhyme. That would be
impossible, for it would mean the abandonment of accentual rhythm.
Her poems carry their own metrical sweetness and, above all, the
purpose and intent of the poems are couched in words that do not
jar the senses.
Depth of meaning,
too, marks her every poem and there is a careful word-use that presents
forms and combinations that impinge. We find this remarkably so
in her poem "Genesis".
The blood of
Christ was forced down trembling throats
Menikes converted to Mary
And Daya to Dias...
A land was splintered by the sword and the cross,
The cracks widened
Into gaping chasms.
There is the inevitability of it all in those lines and they make
no apology for the way they are written. The genesis of enforced
colonization with the spirit of a new assailant God moving across
the face of the land.
Plains" we are reminded of the trespassers of the modern world
- tarred roads, vans, holiday-makers.
To a littered picnic park
These are poems that challenge. They hold in them the rapier flicks
of a challenging Zorro as well as their perspicacity. Premini finds
much to sing about in the desolation of our own country, beaten
to its knees by a senseless, brutal war that has only served to
unchain the beast in man. Her "Rustic Scene" takes us
back to the days of atrocity and the resultant hardening of mind
when an infernal blood-lust saw many victims of the shadow-killers
burn beyond all human recognition:
A cluster of
Impatient children astride their mothers' hips
Eyes which say nothing
Surround a smoking body
Black as granite
Stick out like branches
Wisps of idle conversation
Float above the smoke.
infused fresh life and spirit into the movements of the muses. I
thought of the ballet-master introducing new forms, bolder salutations.
There is an inspiration that proclaims: "I have no poverty
of thought! My poetry may be good or bad but I have not denationalized
it. I have written of this land and of the lands of my travels and
I feel in my pen the same beat I feel in my heart."
worries her in "Mea Culpa"; her mind swells steely in
"The Roulette Wheel" and is stroked with blood-tipped
feathers in 'A Village Tale'. Many of the poems concern the times
of terror - of that unleashed by the JVP and met with bone-crushing
venom by uniformed killers. "Aftermath" tells us of the
racial hatred - where the Tamil's black pottu became both the stigma
of her suffering and that of Sinhala shame.
not pull her punches. She does not like to rewrite either and this
is made evident in "A New Poem" where she admits that
any re-crafting will lose all fervour. Too often, critics look for
rhythms where none exists. Many of Premini's lines are, to all intents
and purposes, mere prose. They even violate the established canons
of metre. Yet, taken as a whole, we have something quite sensational.
holds a promise. Premini had many of the poems in this book short-listed
at the 1998 Gratiaen Awards.
There is certainly
a promise of more, an assurance that she will continue "to
find a new romance in every new poem" she writes. As a first
publication, "Kaleidoscope" is an island in itself and
Premini's own lines serve best:
each island continent universe the miracle of language blossomed....
It has. It