The scientific name of the great grey shrike literally means “sentinel butcher”: Lanius is the Latin term for a butcher, while excubitor is Latin for a watchman or sentinel. This refers to the birds’ two most conspicuous behaviours – storing food animals by impaling them on thorns, and using exposed tree-tops or poles to watch the surrounding area for possible prey. Use of the former by Conrad Gessner established the quasi-scientific term lanius for the shrikes. Linnaeus chose his specific name because the species “observes approaching hawks and announces [the presence] of songbirds” as he put it. This habit was also put to use in falconry, as fancifully recorded by William Yarrell later. The common English name “shrike” is from Old English scríc, “shriek”, referring to the shrill call.
The species was first scientifically described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 edition of Systema Naturae under the current scientific name. His description is L[anius] cauda cuneiformi lateribus alba, dorso cano, alis nigris macula alba – “a shrike with a wedge-shaped white-bordered tail, back grey, wings black with white spot”. At that time, none of the other grey shrikes – including the lesser grey shrike (L. minor), for which the description of the tail pattern is incorrect and which some authors already recognized as distinct – were considered separate species by Linnaeus, but that was to change soon.
Linnaeus’ binomial name replaced the cumbersome and confusing descriptive names of the earlier naturalist books he gives as his sources: in his own Fauna Svecica he named it ampelis caerulescens, alis caudaque nigricantibus (“light-blue waxwing, wings and tail blackish”), while it is called pica cinerea sive lanius major (“ash-grey magpie or greater shrike”) by Johann Leonhard Frisch, who in his splendid colour plate confused male and female. But most authors cited by Linnaeus – Eleazar Albin, Ulisse Aldrovandi, John Ray and Francis Willughby – called it lanius cinereus major or similar, which is a near-literal equivalent of the common name “great grey shrike”. The type locality of Linnaeus is simply given as Europa (“Europe”).