Revisiting T.H. White’s book The Goshawk last year brought back to me the peculiar lexicon of falconry: its austringer, keeper of goshawks; the creance used to leash hawks in training; and most indelibly the birds’ repeated bating, which is when they flap their wings and flutter away from their perch or trainer’s fist in an effort to fly off.
If training goes well, episodes of bating eventually diminish. (Just as well, since it can be hard to read descriptions of it – though nothing, I’m sure, compared to experiencing it as trainer, or as bird.) The word itself is many centuries old, and comes from Old French batre ‘to beat’, from late Latin batĕre. Here it is in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew:
These kites, That baite, and beate, and will not be obedient.
Because of its subject matter and positive reviews, I had been looking forward to Helen Macdonald’s multiple-award-winning H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014). On a spin to the Burren last week, fittingly enough, my friend J gave me a copy, and I immediately put it on top of the pile, to be read once I finished the Olaf Stapledon I was immersed in.
H is for Hawk lived up to its word of mouth: it’s an engrossing memoir-slash-natural-history book, heartfelt, sad, and funny, full of arresting lines, memorable scenes, and vibrant descriptive passages that pull you up short. For Sentence first I’d like to return to the terminology of falconry; here Macdonald, a historian of science, outlines some of it:
As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.
Sometimes there was a sociolinguistic aspect to this jargon: ‘Knowing your falconry terminology attested to your place in society,’ Macdonald writes, and relays an example of T.H. White (whose haunting classic is spiritual kin to Hawk) worrying about what the proper word was for the whip, or crop, that he used on a hunt, ‘terrified he’d be found out because he kept forgetting his falconry terms’.
The half-hidden hierarchies of class that troubled White formed no part of Macdonald’s own early implication in the specialist lingo:
[T]he words weren’t about social fear when I was small. They were magic words, arcane and lost. I wanted to master this world that no one knew, to be an expert in its perfect, secret language.
This reminds me of something Eva Hoffman wrote about the formative effect her childhood visits to the library had on her, but I’ll save that for another post. You can find out more about H is for Hawk here, and even read the first few chapters. The striking cover art is by Chris Wormell.