OED online – Etymology: < French gobe-mouches ( < gober to swallow + mouche fly) flycatcher (bird and plant), credulous person. In French gobe-mouches is the form employed for both singular and plural…
… One who credulously accepts all news, however improbable or absurd. Also attrib.
First citation 1818; Most recent is from 1884.
Michael Quinion’s excellent World Wide Words site/newsletter first brought this word to my attention; he has a fuller discussion of the origins and meanings of this word there. He explains that it probably extended from its ornithological usage to signify a rather credulous, simple person who goes through the world with an open mouth, ready to ‘swallow’ any story, however ridiculous. There may also be a connection with a Gaelic word for beak or mouth from which English derives the colloquial ‘gob’ for mouth.
According to the French version of Wikipedia, gobe-mouches is a bird species of various genres, family Muscicapidae in the order of Passeriformes, which includes passerines – this includes more than half of all bird species. Sometimes known as perching birds or songbirds, the passerines form one of the most diverse terrestrial vertebrate orders, with over 5,000 identified species. There’s also a species of Polioptila called gobemoucherons.
Only four species of gobe-mouches are found in Europe : grey, black, collared and dwarf; cf certain Stizorhins or Horizorin (formerly ‘gobemouche’) de Dohrn
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers) are mainly small arboreal insectivores. There are 274 species worldwide of which 23 species occur in France. One such is the Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis), a rare vagrant in western Europe.
Back to the OED online, and citations for this word, among which I noticed this:
1844 A. W. Kinglake Eothen v. 67: ‘ The gobe-mouche expression of countenance with which he is swallowing an article in the National.’ Alexander William Kinglake · Eothen; or, Traces of travel brought home from the East · 1st edition, 1844.
Alexander William Kinglake (1809 – 1891) was a travel writer and historian. He was born near Taunton, Somerset; in 1856 he abandoned his legal practice in order to devote himself to literature and public life. Eothen was a very popular work of exotic orientalism, in which he described a journey he made about ten years earlier in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. I read this so long ago I can hardly recall it; must have another look and maybe report back here.
In my notebooks I found another curious ornithological term which I feel compelled to share:
OED online again (slightly abridged): Etymology: < scientific Latin Pratincola, former genus name (G. H. Kramer Elenchus vegetabilium et animalium per Austriam inferiorem observatorum (1756) 382) < classical Latin prātum a meadow) + incola inhabitant. Compare scientific Latin Hirundo pratincola, adopted by Linnaeus ( Systema Naturæ (ed. 12, 1766) 345) as the taxonomic name of the collared pratincole….
Any of several long-winged, fork-tailed, plover-like birds of the Old World genus Glareola (family Glareolidae), closely related to the coursers, which resemble swallows when in flight and are found near rivers and marshes.
First cited 1773. One eye-catching citation is this:
1866 Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900, author of Lorna Doone): Cradock Nowell xlvii, ‘A woman’s perception flies on the wings of the pratincole.’
My Chambers dictionary has this: ‘a bird akin to the plovers, with swallow-like wings and tail.’ I like that ‘akin to’: as if written by a Victorian rector. Wouldn’t plover make a great slip of the tongue error for lover. As in ‘I want to be your plover’…
According to Wikipedia they are unusual, being waders, for hunting their insect prey on the wing like the swallows they slightly resemble; they can also feed on the ground. They are distributed across S. Europe and Africa, through Asia to Australia.
The above image is taken from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Natural history of the birds of central Europe) of 1905. Pratincoles’ status in UK: ‘accidental’ (BTO website; 1 sighting per annum). Shame: they’re quite pretty little birds.