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'Osprey' got its name from bigger, bone-crunching bird

Question: I am interested in knowing the meaning of the word "osprey." It looks like a combination of "os," for "bone," and "prey," and I am wondering if it refers to the bird's habit of swallowing the fish it catches whole.Answer: Your theory is partly correct. The "os" in "osprey" does mean "bone." The large bird also known as a "fish hawk" once sported the Latin name "ossifraga," which means literally "bone-breaker." "Fraga" is from "frangere," which means "to break." It appears that "ossifraga" was applied to the bird by early French and English writers, who had taken the name from ancient texts. As used by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, "ossifraga" referred simply to a "kind of eagle."

Pliny's ossifraga is identified by modern ornithologists with the lammergeier, a large eagle-like vulture found in Europe, Asia and northern Africa. The name certainly fits that bird much better than it does the osprey. Whereas ospreys don't do any bone breaking (as you mentioned, they swallow the fish they catch whole), the lammergeier specializes in it. Being a vulture, it feeds on carrion; in order to get at the bone-marrow with its slender bill, it carries any too-large bone aloft and drops it onto flat rocks below. The bone breaks open and the lammergeier dines royally on, you might say, marrow on the half-bone.

At what point exactly some ornithologically unaware French writer decided "ossifraga" referred to the osprey isn't known. It is assumed the bird was given the name, or some version of it, in Old French, though the word has so far only been found in Middle French texts, beginning in the 15th century, by which time it had been modified to "osfraie." Middle English writers used "hospray," "osperaye," and "aspray," before finally settling on "ospray," which ultimately became Modern English "osprey."

Even as late as the 19th-century the osprey was referred to as "break-bones." It has also been called "bald-buzzard," "eagle-fisher," "water eagle," "sea eagle," and "fish eagle."

Question: I was always taught not to end a sentence with a preposition, but I read and hear it all the time. Is this still the conventional wisdom?

Answer: Commentators on English usage are almost universal in noting that it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, but many people continue to cherish the notion that it is not. The bad reputation of the deferred preposition goes back to the middle of the 17th century and is apparently based on Latin rather than English grammar. In English, the construction is certainly standard. It is even required in some cases.

The first construction requiring it is a restrictive clause introduced by "that." Truman Capote once wrote of "the magazine that I most wanted to have a story published in." Restrictive clauses from which "that" has been omitted also must end in a preposition, as when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to a friend about his intentions "as soon as I finish the story I'm working on." A clause introduced by "what" also requires the deferred preposition, as when Elizabeth Drew wrote "we can only speculate what they might have been about." An infinitive clause, exemplified by Russell Baker's remark that a bride and groom "both bought new suits to be married in," and a participial clause, as used by Kenneth G. Wilson in "relatively new and therefore worth keeping track of," are also constructions that must end in a preposition.

Passive constructions end in prepositions, as in Cynthia Ozick's observation that "people deficient in learning were looked down on." Questions, too, require the deferred preposition, as in "Has the car been paid for?" and "What does he look like?"

The preposition at the end is a natural part of English that has acquired an undeservedly bad reputation. It will no doubt continue to occur commonly in standard speech and writing, and it will probably also continue to be regarded by some people as an error.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Send questions to: Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, PO Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102. Merriam-Webster Inc.

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