I had cause recently (while birding in Dubai - lots of fun) to get into a
discussion about the origins of the name "Isabelline" (as of the now-famous
FNQ Wheatear, and also a Palearctic shrike) and did a short Google search,
producing the following interesting item which I reproduce here for the
interest of those who don't already know the story (I don't recall anything
on Birding-Aus about the name at the time of the FNQ Wheatear, although I
may have missed it). Richard
Of a greyish-yellow colour.
This is what the dictionaries say, though it has also been used as the name
for a parchment or sand colour. It's clearly one of those intermediate or
indeterminate colours for which the creators of paint catalogues must search
creatively to find a good name. They haven't borrowed isabelline, however,
which went out of use in the nineteenth century, except in the fixed names
of a few animals and plants, such as the isabelline wheatear, the isabelline
shrike, and the isabelline bear, which is a reddish- or yellowish-brown
animal of the Himalayas.
The word clearly comes from the personal name Isabella. There's a folk
tale-mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary only to deny its truth-that
says the origin was Isabella, Archduchess of Austria, daughter of Philip II
of Spain. Philip laid siege to Ostend in 1601 and in a moment of filial
fervour Isabella vowed not to change her intimate undergarments until the
city was taken. Unfortunately for her (and for those around her) the siege
lasted another three years, leading to this off-colour word for over-worn
It is however easy to save the lady's reputation as the name is recorded in
an inventory of the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I a year before the siege
began, in 1600: "one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten ... set with
However, subscribers tell me that the word is also known by related names in
French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its sense in French and German
primarily refers to the colour of a horse. These languages have much the
same folk tale about Isabella's underwear. However, the references in all
cases are to the siege of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella that ended in
January 1492. It seems that some tellers of the tale may have seized upon
the wrong Isabella.
One explanation for the origin of the word is that it derives from Arabic
izah for lion, so roughly "lion-coloured".
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