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Gallus morio or Gallus morion?

Gallus morio, indigenous to India and so baptised by Temminck in 1813, matches the Buffon's Black Rooster from Mozambique or Degro.

I didn't find the etymology of Degro, but it seems to me that perhaps Degro is a corruption of Negro because in English this chicken is said Negro fowl and in German Neger or MohrenhŘhner. I believe that Darwin, listing the breeds, is naming it as Sooty. Also Teodoro Pascal is using the word morio at page 321 in Le razze della gallina domestica, 1905.

It should be equivalent to the present Indian breed called Kadakanath or Kadaknath or Karaknath or Karnatak and whose original name seems to be Kalamasi, meaning black fleshed chicken: deep black plumage with bronze tints and, besides the skin, are black the muscles - flesh plunged into ink -, the periostium, the bone marrow and other anatomical structures. According to someone, it might come from Silky, because some specimens have frayed and silky feathers. The Silky can't however to reach the melanosis' degree owned by Kalamasi, because the former doesn't have black muscles, at least they are only a few black, but never are black those of its breast. But Temminck is categorical about the Coq nŕgre he described: only the skin and the periostium are black, whereas the remaining of the bone and the flesh have the same colour as in all usual chicken breeds.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was aware of a singular English hen he latinised into Morenna anglorum, to which in Ornithologia he devoted the second part of the chapter entitled De Gallo scotico sylvestri et de Morenna anglorum, included in foreign chickens section. When he speaks about Morenna, either because perhaps of an oversight, or because of a reverence to the language of the country of a such bird, the latinisation of the English name is written with h letter, that's Morhenna:

Gallinaceum sylvestre genus apud nos est (inquit Turnerus Anglus, Morhennam vulgo vocant, ni fallor, forte propter colorem maris nigrum, ut in mauris; alii, puto Hetcock, id est, Gallum ericarum) in quo faemina ita a mare differt, ut duorum generum istiusmodi rerum imperito videri possint.

Among us there is a wild genus of gallinaceans (says Turner the Englishman, and commonly they call it Morhenna, if I'm not mistaken, probably because of the black colour of the male, as among the Moors; I think that others call it Hetcock [= Heath cock] that is the Cock of the heathers) in which the female differs in colour so much from the male that to an inexperienced, because of the aforesaid reasons, they seem to be two different genera.

It's clear that Aldrovandi tried to keep almost intact the English word moor transforming it into mor, which in this specific case takes up the meaning of dark, since this was the current etymological interpretation in England [...inquit Turnerus Anglus, Morhennam vulgo vocant, ni fallor, forte propter colorem maris nigrum, ut in mauris...]. But, If he had desired to give at all costs the meaning of dark to a such English word, rather than that of hen of the heathers, the latinisation would have been Maurhenna, being the Latin adjective Maurus the only one having the meaning of Moor, and then, in a metaphorical significance, brown, dark, black.

Now we would have to know whether Aldrovandi didn't exactly remember what William Turner reported (probably in Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia, Colonia, 1544) on the parallelism between the male's plumage and the Moors skin's colour, or whether on the contrary he was remembering very well of that, faking however to have doubts about his mnemonic abilities, with the purpose to dissent, discreetly, from this thesis.

In fact in English and in ancient times Moor meant native of Mauritania, but later native of north-west Africa, i.e. Moroccan. Its etymology is from the Greek (a)maur˛s and mÓuros: difficult to be seen, obscure, dark, gloomy, even blind.

On the contrary moor, in small letters, is meaning heath, marshy land; its etymology is from Old English mere = sea, lake. The present terms moor cock and moor fowl signify cock of heath. This second etymological possibility for Morhenna is brought by Aldrovandi at once: "I think that others call it Hetcock, that is, rooster of the heaters" [alii, puto Hetcock, id est, Gallum ericarum].

Nowadays moorhen is identifying the Mountain Pheasant's female as well as the Gallinule. On the basis of the descriptions he collected, Aldrovandi was uncertain on the identity of that Anglian bird. Audubon reported among the American birds also the ubiquitous (except Australasia) Gallinula chloropus - the Gallinule - and called it Common Moorhen, which has dark plumage, but at the same time is living in lakes, ponds, swamps.

It's a puzzle to want to infer whether in XVI century the English term moor had also the meaning of Moor, or whether only pointed out the marshy habitat of that bird on which Aldrovandi investigated, who, being meticulous, didn't omit to put it among the foreign birds. He included it in a such section of the chapter dealing with domestic fowl because, being discordant the British descriptions, he was not able to arrange a precise Morenna's identification; differently he wouldn't have quoted here this bird, because he also had plenty of Common Moorhens in his dwelling area, that of Bologna.

In conclusion: the Latin mor, contained in morhenna, could mean dark because it's an English latinised word and because some British suggested to Aldrovandi this interpretation, while other British were thinking that this name was deriving from heath. But the Aldrovandi's morhenna doesn't have anything to deal with the Black Rooster from Mozambique.

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The masculine Latin noun morio, genitive morionis, means stupid, foolish, imbecile. The word becomes from the Greek adjective mor˛s, in Sanskrit murah, having both the same Latin meaning: foolish, simple, fatuous, insane, crazy.

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The neuter Latin noun morion, genitive morionis, means different things.

1 - A first meaning of morion is SolÓnum nigrum L., the Nightshade, widespread and common in uncultivated lands and in rubble, whose fruit is a black berry having the size of a blueberry, except than in very infrequent subspecies, whose berries can be yellow, yellow-greenish or red. Attention, it's toxic for poultry, while for the man it must be used with a lot of caution. The active principle is the glucoalkaloid solanine, antispastic, antiseptic, analgesic - slower but with more persistent effect than morphine, giving paralysis of sensitive and motor nervous terminations - narcotic, sedative, anaphrodisiac. Solanum nigrum, likewise other Solanaceae, has the power to get some solamen, that in Latin means comfort, consolation, relief. Pliny speaks of the Solanum nigrum in his Naturalis historia (21,180):

Quin est alterum genus, quod halicacabon vocant, soporiferum est atque etiam opio velocius ad mortem, ab aliis morion, ab aliis moly appellatum [...]

There is another genus called halicacabon, which is soporific and also faster than opium in giving death, by others called morion, by others moly [...]

2 - A second meaning of morion is a kind of mandrake, told in Greek m˛rios, a noun of feminine gender. Speaking of the mandrake (25,148), Pliny doesn't report so quickly lethal effects as for the Nightshade does, being the latter faster than opium in giving death. On the contrary the mandrake, "by somebody also called morion, would pass for a rather handy herb." We can suppose insofar that for Pliny the most important vegetable - from a toxicological point of view - was represented by Solanum nigrum, carrying usually very black berries.

Mandragora autumnalis Bert.,1820, is one of two Mediterranean mandrake species, being Mandragora vernalis Bert.,1824 the other one. The autumnalis mandrake is distinguishing itself from that of the spring - i.e. vernalis - having first of all purplish rather than white-greenish flowers. But the keystone to explain why morion, perhaps, could point out something of dark, it's not the corolla's colour shown by autumnalis, but the colour of its root: in fact Mandragora autumnalis has a blackish root, while the root of vernalis is whitish.

Nevertheless, if we want to understand the etymology of the words morion (Latin) and m˛rios (Greek), we don't have to found ourselves on the colour of the root of Mandragora autumnalis, neither on the colour of more abundant berries of Solanum nigrum. On the contrary, we must base ourselves upon the effects performed by the active principles held in both autumnalis and vernalis, as well as upon those we already saw in Solanum nigrum. We also have seen that the Greek adjective mor˛s becomes from the Sanskrit murah, meaning fool.

The most rational mandrake's employment is due to the Romans, that used it to stun patients for surgical interventions, getting a condition of semi-unconciousness. So it's explained the meaning of morion and m˛rios to identify the mandrake, and not only a species, as both are possessing the same pharmacological effects: soothing of nervous system and narcotic, effects also owned by Solanum nigrum.

Another plant is existing that doesn't have any pharmacological effect on the psyche, being only emollient and anti-diarrhoea: Orchis morio or Goat Lily, an orchidacea of the woods, of the lawns and of the damp pastures, with purplish violet flowers.

Because its appellation was seeming to me a mistake like in the case of Gallus morio, I put the question on the etymology of morio attributed to this orchidacea in writing to Professor Carlo Del Prete (botanical garden of Modena University), who replied as follows:

"I have read, but I don't remember where, that the term morio points out the helmet's form of the superior tepals, reunited in hood or helmet. The term would come from the incorrect XVII century latinisation into morio, morionis just of the Italian term morione, that is a sort of helmet."

In fact the Italian word morione identifies a metallic helmet of the centuries XVI-XVII, perhaps of Spanish origin, brought by the arquebusiers as well as by important people instead of the heavier war helmet. The etymology of Italian morione, in this case, is represented by the Spaniard morro, of uncertain origin, that points out anything of round shape whose figure is similar to that of the head. The Italian term morione in Spanish sounds morriˇn. The English term morion has the same etymology as well as the same meaning: soldier's helmet without beaver or visor. Then, also the helmet doesn't have anything to deal with a dark colour.

In Italian is existing another morione, used for pointing out a variety of especially dark quartz, sometimes even black, because of crystal's inclusions. [Grolier encyclopaedia: black quartz = cairngorm or morion; Oxford etymological: cairngorm = precious stone named from a mountain (Gaelic Carngorm 'blue cairn') where it is found.]

The Italian De Agostini encyclopaedia gives the exact etymon of morione we are dealing with in this moment: "from (mor)morion". While the Encyclopaedic Treccani Italian Dictionary is inclined to derive it from morio, morionis. Soon we will see why.

It's once more Pliny who is speaking about morion/cairngorm in his Naturalis historia (37,173):

Mormorion ab India nigerrimo colore tralucet, vocatur et promnion [...]

The cairngorm is a transparent stone of very black colour coming from India, also called promnion [...]

No each ancient code is reporting the Pliny's phrase using the identical words. Mormorion is present in Codex Bandergensis, being the only one that gives the dark quartz using the aforesaid headword of feminine gender, whose genitive is mormorionis. The other codes, I'm not listing here, give: morio, moryon and morion.

One of the most accredited codes, and which might have been Temminck's source, is Editio Parisina Harduini - first edition, 1685 - either second edition, 1741. That's why Treccani is giving morio as origin of the Italian word morione, the black quartz.

There exists only a philological explanation why this dark quartz has not only been transcribed as morio, but also as mormorion, morion, moryon. The explanation is only philological - I'm newly underlining - and not etymological, unless it didn't exist the superstition that who dared to look at the black quartz was taken by symptoms likewise those produced by mandrake or by nightshade. But of this fact doesn't exist any tradition.


Agreeing with Professor Capponi, we can conclude that the quartz morion has been so named because it can be black as the berries of the most toxic herb are, and therefore the most important among the herbs we have dealt with: Solanum nigrum.

In ancient literature nightshade and mandrake are handed down as morion, and then also our rooster must be called in this way. From the same rule is not escaping also the morion or cairngorm quartz, to whose colour Temminck perhaps has referred himself when he classified the Black Rooster, which was indigenous to India alike Pliny's mormorion.


Gallus morion Corti, 1996

Elio Corti and Filippo Capponi

Text drawn from Summa Gallicana
translated by Elio Corti - 1998