Sylvia: Zur Entstehung des wissenschaftlichen Namens der Grasmücke (Arist. Hist. an. 592b22)

The article aims at demonstrating that the Latin bird name sylvia used by modern zoologists originates from the Greek ὕλας, attested in several manuscripts of Aristotle’s Historia animalium (592b22). Working on his Latin translation of this treatise in the 1450s–1470s, Theodore Gaza preferred the variant “πυρρὸς ὕλας” to other readings. He rendered πυρρός with a neologism rubicilla and ὕλας with the word silvia used only as a proper name before. As all the editions of the Greek text from the 1504 ed. princeps onwards take over Aldus Manutius’ emendation πυρρούλας, the origin of silvia has not been ascertained until now, even though modern editions have “πυρρὸς ὕλας” in their apparatus. Gaza’s sixteenth-century readers considered silvia (later mostly spelled sylvia) a synonym of the nearby word rubecula, another neologism of his coinage, identified arbitrarily since the late fifteenth century with robin redbreast. That is why in 1769 Giovanni Antonio Scopoli used the word sylvia as the name for his newly introduced bird genus comprising robin redbreast. In 1800 Georges Cuvier suggested leaving only the typical warblers in that genus (“typical warblers” is a problematic name, since also whitethroats and other birds belong to the genus; the German Grasmücken is taxonomically more convenient), whereas other species, including robin redbreast, were moved to new genera. Thus, the word silvia coined as an equivalent for the Greek ὕλας (which was perhaps a scribal error) had been considered a name of robin redbreast for three centuries. Since 1800, spelled sylvia, it designates typical warblers.

Vorobyev G. Sylvia Zur Entstehung des wissenschaftlichen Namens der Grasmücke (Arist. Hist. an. 592b22)