Basque Fact of the Week: Good Birds to You!

Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! Hanukkah Sameach! However you celebrate, the holidays are upon us. In Basque, it is traditional to say Gabon Zoriontsua! or Eguberri On! Sometimes you’ll hear the ubiquitous Zorionak! But where does this word, used in so many situations, come from…?

“Txori onak” to you and yours this holiday season. Photo by the Uberuaga/Van De Graaff family from the Bosque del Apache.
  • It is very clear that Zorion and Zorionak – literally many zorion – come from the compound words zori and on, and that zori, at least today, means omen or luck. So, Zorionak means “good luck” or “good fortune.” Similarly, zoritxar and zorigaitz mean “bad luck, misfortune” from zori+txar (txar=bad) or zori+gaitz (gaitz=harm). What is a little less clear is where zori comes from.
  • Larry Trask, and many other Basque linguists as well as the Euskal Hiztegi Historiko-Etimologikoa, say that zori originally meant bird. It took on the meaning of omen or luck from the practice of looking to the flight of birds as an omen, as a way to tell the future. So, Zorionak then means, in its most literal and ancient sense, “good birds.”
  • That a word for birds could shift to mean something like luck is not without parallel. Trask notes that the Latin word avicem, meaning bird, became the old Castilian auçe, meaning luck or fortune. So, other languages have also experienced this evolution in meaning.
  • There is another proposed etymology in which zori comes from the Latin sors, meaning luck. However, the recent discovery of the Hand of Irulegi, in which the word sorioneku appears, maybe puts this theory to rest (though I’m no linguist).
  • A number of other interesting words come from txori (the modern word for bird):
    • txori-negar: tree sap, or literally bird tears.
    • txoriburu: bird-brained (same as in English). It can also mean a thread that has a lump in it. Txori-lepo, or bird’s neck, also refers to an uneven thread.
    • txolarte: literally “between birds,” txolarte means free time.
    • txori-kaka: literally “bird poop,” used to refer to someone of little importance.
  • For Christmas, it is more traditional to say Eguberri on. Eguberri is another compound word meaning, literally, “new day,” so Eguberri on means “good new day.” It seems this came from marking the solstice, though I haven’t found much information about the origin of this phrase.
  • If you are curious about the birds of the Basque Country, check out They have maps of where you can find the various species that fill the Basque skies.

Primary source: Euskal Hiztegi Historiko-Etimologikoa, Euskaltzaindia

2 thoughts on “Basque Fact of the Week: Good Birds to You!”

  1. Best wishes to all. As we say in my neck of the woods: I wish you all everything I wish for myself.

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