What’s the difference between crackle and grackle? I don’t mean “tell me what the dictionary says.” Look at them and listen to them: the only difference is that first letter, that first phoneme, and in fact the only difference between the two sounds is that one is voiced and one is not. Indeed, it’s not even that much, since “voiced” stops just have less voice onset and offset time – we don’t actually use our voice during a stop in English, or in most other languages – and, in English, the voiceless stop is aspirated, meaning that in this word the /r/ after it is also devoiced. That’s it. So they should seem very similar words, no?
Well, as similar as grow and crow. Now tell me how often you think of those two words as similar. How about good and could? Gable and cable? Glue and clue? Grab and crab? Each of these pairs has just that one difference: /g/ versus /k/, voiced versus voiceless (and aspirated). Oh, they rhyme; easy to hear that. But so do tackle, wood, stable, blue, and flab, respectively. And the /g/ words hardly seem much closer to the /k/ words than those other rhymes do. The /g/ words lack the crispness of the /k/ words; they seem blunter, or more colourful, somehow a bit more like that guy in the loud polyester suit than like the lean woman in the black dress.
And, now, let’s imagine for the moment that both words, grackle and crackle, are onomatopoeic: we know what a crackle sounds like – a fire, a candy wrapper, a sparkler, a newspaper crumpled perhaps. What does a grackle sound like? More like some ugly bird, no? Or a toad?
Well, crackle is sort of onomatopoeic – it’s formed from crack, which has an onomatopoeic origin, and the le suffix indicating that it’s a bunch of little cracks in sequence. And grackle? It may be sort of onomatopoeic, but way back in its Latin origins. The word it comes from is gracula, which may be imitative of the sound of the bird it named.
Gracula! Goodness gracious! That sounds like it should be something black and vampiric, no? Well, it somewhat is. The grackle is a large-ish black bird, larger than a blackbird; it may be found flocking with starlings, though its sound is no murmuration – depending on the specific type of grackle, and the time of year, it might be something like “chewink” or “oo whew whew whew whew” or “jeeb” or whistles and whines… unpleasant in any event. And loud. Oh, and they are also known to imitate humans, though not as well as mockingbirds, with which they sometimes flock.
Ah, but its feathers are sombre, yes? Well, no, actually: they’re iridescent; up close, they shimmer with different colours. Common grackles even rub ants on themselves to add to the sheen. And grackles are aggressive and grabby. They eat pretty much anything. Even things that other birds had in their beaks just a moment ago. I gotta tell you, these birds can be like having the worst neighbours with the loudest party not just next door but coming into your kitchen. No wonder a guy named Michael Berry made a short film called Day of the Grackle about a guy grappling with a grievously grating grackle (view the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfCRBW-V0V8 – it has a link to the full 15-minute version).
So avian Dracula indeed, eh? Oh, except that gracula was the Latin word for jackdaw. Which is a different bird. And in fact grackle in Europe refers to a different bird from the North American birds called grackles. Is the European grackle a jackdaw? No, it’s a kind of myna. Or actually any of a few different kinds.
So how the did the name shift? It seems that at first grackles were thought to be of the same family as jackdaws. Now, though, the North American ones are all known to be icterids, and most belong to the genus Quiscalus. But naw, dude, never mind the formal classification. That black bird with the loud voice and loud black feathers is a grackle. The name suits it.