Ever come across the word callow? It’s a relatively common English surname: the actor Simon Callow and the painter William Callow. It also appears as a place name in England and Ireland: Callow, Derbyshire; Callow, Herefordshire; Callow, Shropshire; Callow Hill, Worcestershire; Callow End, Worcestershire; and Callow, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

According to the dictionary, callow is an adjective for a young person who has not learned how to behave as an adult. It denotes someone who is immature or lacking adult sophistication. I don’t think that’s the meaning the surnames and place names are drawing on.

Callow derives from the Old English word calu, meaning bare or bald. The Old English word comes from the Proto-Germanic *kalwa- and has several cognates: Middle Dutch calu, Dutch kaal, Old High Germankalo, and German Kahl.

When I hear the word bald, I tend to think of old men, certainly not young people. And that place in Worcestershire dubbed Callow Hill, I suspect, was originally a hill that didn’t have any trees or other features on it, not a new hill that didn’t know how to act like an adult hill. So how do we get from bald to immature? Sometime between 1570 and 1580, someone described young birds without feathers as callow. Eventually the meaning extended to encompass any immature creature, including people, who weren’t bald.

Photo Attribution: “Chestnut collared Longspur, Calcarius ornatus, newly hatched nestling, still wet, begging in nest,” by Kati Fleming (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Weird Words
One comment on “Callow
  1. mpax1 says:

    For some reason I associate shallow with it. Perhaps because they’re spelled so similarly.

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