The Harmony of Languages

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

The so-called Muscovy duck is so called not in view of its homeland in the vicinity of Moscow –for in fact it is native to Central and South America– but rather in mistranslation of its Latin designation, Anas moschata, the “musky duck”, thus “not transferred from Muscovia,” as the English naturalist John Ray writes in 1713, “but from the rather strong musk odour it exudes.”[1] While domesticated breeds had begun to circulate back to Europe by the 16th century, so that the duck’s “naked and carunculated face” gains a mention even in Linnaeus’s 1746 Fauna svecica,[2] a nearly exhaustive description of the zoological diversity of Sweden, nonetheless it is unlikely that in its wild form the bird could have distributed itself across the northern parts of Eurasia. It is after all a nonmigratory species, evolved to prefer life in swamps.

We may wonder, then, what led Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, in his Forschungreise durch Sibirien [Research Voyage through Siberia], to suppose that he had seen such a bird, or that such birds could be seen, on his arrival in the far eastern region of the Siberian Governorate known as “Yakutia”.[3] In his list of vocabulary items recorded in the Yakut or Sakha language of on February 4, 1724 –thus, following the Dutch traveller Nicolaes Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye [Northern and Eastern Tartary] of 1692,[4] the second oldest attempt in the history of Sakha to record the spoken language in writing–, the German explorer gives the word Turpàn as the equivalent of “the Moscowy duck Willughbeji”, referring, as contemporary readers would have known, to Francis Willughby and John Ray’s 1676 Ornithologia.[5] But turpan is not a Sakha word; it is a Russian word, and it designates not the Anas moschata, but rather the Melanitta fusca, commonly known in English as a “velvet duck” or “velvet scoter”, whose habitat centers around the Yenisey River basin in Siberia, and whose feathers are an iridescent black.

More here.