A dictionary to read from cover to cover

The Dictionary of American Bird Names, Revised Edition, by Ernest A. Choate. Revised by Raymond A. Paynter Jr. Boston: The Harvard Common Press. 226 pp. $17.95. Now who would ever suspect that a murder mystery would be hidden in a dictionary of bird names?

But there it is, buried in a discussion of the classification of species and subspecies.

That is not the only entertaining bit to be found in the revised edition of this birders' standby. Look up the entry for ``Owl'' and you find that the name ``is onomatopoeic and derived from the bird's call'' -- from Latin ``to cry out in pain,'' from Greek ``an outcry,'' which is tied up with the croaking of frogs! Owlet, howl, halloo, hullabaloo, and hallelujah are all connected.

It is difficult to say whether this book is more valuable for scientific information or for bedside reading.

But that does not diminish its importance as an item for the birder's bookshelf, since so much general information on habits and habitats accompanies the etymologies.

Updated, it now corresponds with the American Ornithologists' Union's latest nomenclature.

The book lists entries both by common and scientific names, and has a biographical appendix, bibliography, and English/Latin glossary. But please don't skip over the preface and introduction, which are as full of goodies as the dictionary itself and the biographical section.

The author was a distinguished ornithologist and teacher of English. He could not have a better monument.

Mary S. Cowen is a free-lance writer and longtime bird watcher.

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