Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXIII: It’s a Bird – $600

Jeopardy! category: IT’S A BIRD (14-07-2014)

$400 clue: This term meaning to rigidly categorize comes from small desk compartments

Correct response

The gist: It might seem weird that a bird-word comes from a name for small desk compartments, but then language can be weird. 

It’s true that the term “pigeonhole” comes not from holes meant for pigeons, but from the use of the term for shelves and drawers in writing desks – but those shelves and drawers, of course, got their name from their (supposed) resemblance the holes where pigeons nest and rest inside coops or dovecotes. The keeping and breeding of pigeons (and doves, which are really just a subset of pigeons, usually the smaller and lighter-coloured ones) has been a part of noble life in Europe and the Middle East for over two millennia, and possibly much earlier in ancient Egypt and Persia. Illustrious Romans like Cicero, Varro, and Pliny the Elder have left us writings about pigeon fancying, and the archaeological remains of columbaria (the Latin word for dovecotes – pigeons belong to the clade Columbidae) have been found all over the Roman world, from France to Israel to North Africa. In the Middle Ages, the right to breed pigeons was restricted by law, known in French as the droit de colombier. The ranks of famous pigeon fanciers includes Charles Darwin, for whom the changes and variations he saw among his birds was a major inspiration for his theory of evolution by natural (or, in this case, artificial) selection. Pigeon breeding has also been a traditional activity outside Europe, particularly in China, Japan, and much of East Asia.

And the term “Pigeonhole” has pigeonholed itself into applications outside bird nests and small compartments. In math, the pigeonhole principle states that if n objects are to be put in m categories, and nm, then at least one category must contains more than one object – a self-evident statement that can be used to prove non-self-evident statements. And in computer science, the pigeonhole sort is a sorting algorithm (and algorithm used to organize data according to some criteria), where the desired output is a list of categories and the associated number of items in each.

A 3rd-century CE Roman columbarium in modern-day Israel

The clue: Just like the other clues in this category, this one just gives a definition of a term and leaves the rest to the viewer, without reference to the avian origins of the term. The writers tell us it’s bird-y in the category, and that’s all they’ll do for it.

In Jeopardy!: Just five clues inlcude “pigeonhole” in the J!Archive. To pigeonhole them into types, four of the clues including this one reference a desk or office, while three (also including this one) give the “categorization” sense of the word. One mentions birds (“birdbrain,” to be precise), and one offers Columba livia, the Latin name for the rock dove, the species most commonly associated with pigeon fancying.

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