What do puffins, parrots and clowns have in common?

Posted on October 3, 2023

I’m originally from Montreal, and I’ve lived in several cities in the Eastern Townships. So I’m a city girl who has adopted the Moyenne-Côte-Nord lifestyle. Moving away from home, even within your own province, can help you discover new types of wildlife and learn regionalisms.

Here’s how I added new words to my vocabulary and learned about a bird I was unfamiliar with. It all happened on my very first cruise in the Mingan Archipelago:

“Hello, I’d like to take the boat cruise to Île aux Perroquets [parrot island].”
“Okay, we have a boat departing at 1:00 p.m.”
“Fantastic! I can’t wait. I didn’t think there were parrots in Quebec!”

The lady selling tickets smiles with an amused expression.

“Sorry, there aren’t any parrots, but there are clowns of the sea. They nest on the island, which owes its name to the fact that the birds look like parrots.”

Later, on the boat:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Île aux Perroquets! If you take the path to the right, you’ll see the puffin nesting site.”
“Huh? Puffins? I thought we were seeing clowns of the sea.”

The captain smiles kindly.

“It’s the same bird. We call them clowns of the sea. But they’re actually called Atlantic puffins.”

So, what do Atlantic puffins, sea parrots and clowns of the sea have in common? Well, they’re the same bird known by different names!

In English, the official term is Atlantic puffin, and its scientific classification is as follows:Note 1

Scientific name: Fratercula arctica
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae

The term Atlantic puffin comes from the fact that the bird is the only species of puffin that lives on the Atlantic Ocean. But this bird was originally named after the monks of yesteryear. Because the bird’s black and white feathers look like the monks’ robes, French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson named the bird macareux moine [monk puffin] and introduced the genus Fratercula, which comes from the Latin word for friar.

Atlantic puffins are also known as sea parrots. The lady at the tourist kiosk told me that the Atlantic puffin’s beak resembles that of a parrot, and that’s why it’s called a sea parrot. To me, the puffin’s coloured beak looks more like a toucan’s beak.

And what about clown of the sea? Where does that nickname come from? The Atlantic puffin earned this name because of its large white cheeks, triangular eye markings, and orange beak and legs. The name also refers to the way the puffin walks. The Atlantic puffin is actually a bit clumsy on land. When it walks, it moves its whole body back and forth, much like a clown.

I am always impressed when I see that the name of an animal, plant or place is derived from an analogy or metaphor. It always makes for descriptive, original and sometimes amusing names.

Have you ever learned regional vocabulary while visiting a different part of Canada? Tell me about it in the comments section!

Adapted by the Translation Bureau


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Josée Marie-Lise Robillard

Josée Marie-Lise Robillard

Josée Marie-Lise Robillard

Josée Marie-Lise is a graduate of the University of Sherbrooke and a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 2012. She loves etymology and the history of books.


Leave a comment

Please consult the “Comments and interaction” section on the Canada.ca Terms and conditions page before adding your comment. The Language Portal of Canada reviews comments before they’re posted. We reserve the right to edit, refuse or remove any question or comment that violates these commenting guidelines.

By submitting a comment, you permanently waive your moral rights, which means that you give the Government of Canada permission to use, reproduce, edit and share your comment royalty-free, in whole or in part, in any manner it chooses. You also confirm that nothing in your comment infringes third party rights (for example, the use of a text from a third party without his or her permission).

Join in the conversation and share your comments!


Comments are displayed in the language they were submitted.

Read comments

Submitted by Bruce Inksetter on October 3, 2023, at 15:49

Good translation!

Submitted by CARMELLE R on October 3, 2023, at 16:13

Lorsque mes enfants allaient encore à l"école, une intervenante était venue donner une conférence aux parents et pendant la soirée elle a demandé si quelqu'un pouvait préparer la bombe pour le thé. Les gens se sont regardés. "Une bombe"? Elle a répondu "Oui pour bouillir l'eau pour faire le thé." Une maman a dit "Ah! tu veux dire le coquemar? L'intervenante a dit " Mais qu'est que le coq mort a à faire avec bouillir de l'eau? On a bien ri cette soirée là. Les dialectes des différentes parties de la province sont tous différents et intéressants... :)