Why Do We Call Parrots "Polly"?

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The generic name “Pol” for a parrot can be traced back to England since at least the early 1600s. In his 1606 comedy Volpone, Renaissance playwright—and close friend of William Shakespeare—Ben Jonson assigned many of the characters animal personas which reflected their true nature. The cunning title character, for example, is a fox, while his parasitic manservant is a fly.

Two comic relief-type characters, Sir Politic Would-Be (“Sir Pol” for short) and his wife, are visitors from England who are trying to ingratiate themselves into Venetian society, and they do so by simply mimicking the words and behavior of Volpone and his associates. Because of their endearing ignorance of what they are actually saying when they repeat phrases they’ve learned, Jonson describes them as parrots.

It is unclear whether Jonson actually coined the term “Pol” as a catch-all moniker for parrots, or if he simply popularized it. In any case, indulgent British pet owners eventually turned “Pol” into the much cutesier diminutive “Polly,” and both names made their way across the Atlantic. In fact, U.S. President Andrew Jackson had an African Grey parrot named Pol who was famous for spouting obscenities at visiting dignitaries.