It’s that time of year when the baby birds are growing their first proper feathers and the adults are looking very messy as they undergo their annual change of feathers, so it seems a good time to muse on the origins of the words FLEDGE and MOULT.
FLEDGE means to furnish with feathers or wings, or to acquire feathers for flying (as in a young bird). A fledgling is a young bird with new feathers, or an inexperienced person. The word comes from the Middle English fligge, flegge, from the Old English flecge.
A similar word, FLETCH, means to feather. A fletcher is someone who makes feathered arrows and this has been passed down to us today as a family surname. This word comes from the Old French – fleche is an arrow.
I can’t believe there isn’t a connection between the two somewhere way back and I suspect it may have something to do with the Old English word fleogan, and even the Latin word volare, both meaning to fly. The letters F and V are quite close in sound.
While the baby birds are fledging, the grown birds also moult at this time of year and get a new suit of feathers. I assume this time of year is chosen because courting has ended, so it doesn’t matter if the birds don’t look pretty to attract a mate. It’s also a warm season with plenty of food, so they don’t need to be at peak performance. I suppose some also use their old feathers to line the nests for their babies.
MOULT (US spelling is MOLT) is an intransitive verb meaning to cast feathers or other covering, or to be shed; it’s also a transitive verb meaning to shed; as a noun it means the act, process, condition or time of moulting.
It’s from the Old English (bi)mutian, to exchange, from the Latin mutare, to change. The L was a freak of spelling, later sounded (according to my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1980). Note the connection with MUTATE and MUTATION, from the same Latin root and also meaning change.
While birds moult their feathers, dogs moult their hair, reptiles their skin and insects and crustaceans their exoskeletons. In the last case this is the only way the creatures can grow in size as their old, hard body shell confines them and has to be split to let it out with a bigger, soft form that then hardens into a shell again.
A similar world but not directly related is MOLTEN, an adjective used for melted metal. This comes from the verb to melt, meaning to become liquid from a solid state, usully by heat. This comes from the Old English meltan, from the Old Norse melta, to digest. Unrelated, but again you can see how many words relating to change start with an m…
An interesting aside is the word MEWS. Mew is another word for moult – coming from the Old French muer, again from the Latin mutare, to change. The Normans who ruled Britain from 1066 loved falconry and a mew was originally a cage or coop for hawks while they were moulting and consequently feeling out of sorts.
In the king’s mews at Charing Cross hawks were succeeded by horses in the 16th century and the mews buildings became stables.
From this we now have the word mews (which has become singular) to mean a street or courtyard of stabling converted into human homes. They are still very popular in gentrified areas of cities.
Although unrelated, the word moult brings me to the word MOULD (US spelling is MOLD), which has at least three meanings, all coming from different roots:
Firstly mould (US mold) means loose soft earth; earth considered as the material of which the body is formed or to which it turns; the earth of the grave, as in these lines from one of my favourite folk songs, Oak and Ash and Thorn…
Yew that is old in churchyard mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow…
From this meaning of mould we have to MOULDER, meaning to crumble to dust, as in the Battle Hymn of the Republic…
John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave…
Secondly mould (US mold) means a woolly growth on bread, cheese or other vegetable or animal matter, small fungi such as Mucor or Penicillium forming such growths.
Thirdly mould (US mold) means a template or a matrix in which a metal, plaster or plastic casting is made, or for example a blancmange or jelly. The verb to mould can mean to knead, shape or model.
Meaning one comes from Old English molde.
Meaning two comes from Middle English mowle.
Meaning three comes from Old French modle, molle, from the Latin modulus, a measure.
Yet all three end up the same.
Finally there is the one Mold whose spelling lacks the “u” in UK English – that’s a place in Flintshire, North Wales…