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Pronounced /nᵻˈdɪkələs/Help with pronunciation

If your offspring are proving recalcitrant or obstreperous you may like to hurl the epithet nidicolous at them. It will be accurate and tantalisingly unclear; it might even provoke them to crack open a dictionary to discover whether you’re insulting them.

The term is unlikely to be encountered outside a specialist and rather formal book on zoology or ornithology. I found it in the article on birds in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Latin scholars will recognise that the first part derives from the classical nidus, which is a relative of our nest as well as the source of niche and a component of a number of other specialist words. The second part is from the Latin verb colere to inhabit.

However, it’s more specialist than just “nest-living”. It refers specifically to a bird or other animal that’s hatched or born in an undeveloped state and that requires its parents to feed and care for it until it reaches maturity. Some young birds are the reverse of this — they leave the egg at least partially able to fend for themselves. They are said to be nidifugous, nest-fleeing. You may be reminded of newly hatched ducklings waddling after mum from their nest to reach water.

Curiously, English has another pair of terms which form an equivalent pair to nidicolous and nidifugous. You may instead use altricial and precocial, two terms introduced by the Swedish zoologist Carl Jakob Sundevall in 1836. He coined the former from classical Latin altrix, a foster mother or wet nurse, and the latter from scientific Latin praecoces, the plural of the classical Latin praecox, premature or early. Why both pairs should stay in use is unclear.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Feb. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 23 February 2013.