The other day I saw a robin.
Well, wait, that's not true....
The other day, I saw the sweetest little bird. Small and smooth, plain brown for the most part, but with a vibrant, deep orange throat and chest, and white on the belly. The brilliant red-orange color forms a bib that comes to two scalloped points. I observed these details closely, so that I could look up what kind of bird it was. I saw it several times, perching near my windows, and was stopped in my tracks by the lovely trilling song while walking outside.
North American readers may be confused at this point, because robins look like this:
Although the most familiar bird name since childhood, culturally, might be "robin" - songs, poems, and nursery tales bringing Robin Redbreast to early prominence as a concept, I had never been very attracted to the robins I saw around me. A large, assertive ground bird with mottled plumage around his head, white flecks breaking up the smoothness of the color, the robin was interesting to watch, poking in the ground for worms. But I never considered them pretty or charming, and I was certainly never arrested by any song. Call me prejudiced, but little, round birds with big eyes and tiny beaks are just way cuter. Our American robin, by contrast, is almost roguish, not the kind of bird that attracts a child.
So imagine how mystified I was to find that the charming wee bird with the striking orange bib is a "robin." Otherwise known as the European robin, but for all intents and purposes that is the English name for this bird. Which means that all the nursery rhyme delight in robins that we inherited from Britain is addressing a totally different bird.
I had a real crisis of knowledge for a few moments - everything I associate with "robin" is different from that which is meant by "robin" in the land where my language originates. The only things they have in common are red chests and a taste for worms. This raised all kinds of inarticulate questions about perception and language, culture and assumptions (because of course anyone in the UK reading this would have been wondering what I'm going on about - a robin is a robin!)
And so I can't say "the other day I saw a robin," because at that time, seeing a robin is not what I was doing. I was seeing a little, unknown but charming bird, and if anyone had asked me, "Did you see that robin?" I would probably have said no.
Why does it matter? Because so often we make assumptions that others know what we're talking about, or that our version of acquired understanding is the truth. It is something I often think about and observe, and to learn that I have made it to middle age without knowing what a robin is to an English person struck me as a remarkable demonstration of how removed we can be from even those cultures that seem most closely related to our own.
The icing on the ruminative cake was the description given on the Wild England website, which says that robins are "often found on Christmas cards." Oh really? You can find these birds standing around on top of Christmas cards? Hmm, food for another day's thought.....