Falconry terms in ‘H is for Hawk’

January 14, 2015

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.

Helen Macdonald - H is for Hawk - book coverBecause 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:

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Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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Scottish words for snow

August 27, 2013

I’ll assume readers know that the “Eskimos have X words for snow” idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.

It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:

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Pronouns, humans, and dormice

July 23, 2013

The kinds of things relative pronouns refer to in modern English can be divided roughly as follows:

that – things and people

which – things, but not normally people

who – normally people, not things, sometimes animals or human-like entities (“animate but not human”, says Robert Burchfield; “having an implication of personality”, says the OED)

When it comes to relative pronouns, animals often aren’t accorded the same grammatical status as people. We’re more likely to say The crow that was here than The crow who was here, though of course it varies with the speaker, type of animal, and context.

Dormouse in a house

So I was struck by a line in last week’s Galway Advertiser reporting the recent entry of the dormouse to Ireland’s ecology (we already have the wood mouse and house mouse):

Dormice are woodland animals, who nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel (as their name suggests) or brambles.

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d bet that of references to dormice in equivalent contexts, at least 95% would use that or which rather than who.

Not everyone supports this extended use of who, but it is defensible; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage quotes lines by John Updike (“the hamster who had died”) and Stanley Kauffman (“Tonto is his cat, whom he walks on a leash”) showing its literary acceptability.

Dormice of the world, welcome to Ireland – and to the Grammatical Who Club.

[image source]

Climbing Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of Mayo

July 19, 2013

Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)

The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.

stan carey - croagh patrick mountain climb - road to westport, county mayo

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Timber, temples, and “ligging” a hedge

March 3, 2013

A few short passages from The Shining Levels: The Story of a Man Who Went Back to Nature, John Wyatt’s classic memoir of his time working in England’s Lake District. First, on how to “lig” a hedge, which the OED says is an old – and now dialectal – word for lie. (See etymology of lie.)

It was a pleasure to watch Joe ‘lig’ a hedge; for the work was his pride and joy. Hedges around where we were are a wild mixture of hawthorn, hazel, ash and holly. Laying a hedge is necessary when it grows too tall and shows gaps. Bough undergrowth is cut away, leaving the bare upright stems which are then cut only part-way through near the butt, then pulled over and layed [sic] in neat lines, occasionally being pinned firm with hazel stakes. The tools for the job are a pair of leather hedging mitts, one very sharp bill-hook, and a stone to whet it with at regular intervals.

Later one evening Wyatt and a friend are smearing a homemade concoction on tree trunks in order to attract moths for study. The substance is “a mixture of demerara sugar, a drop of ale, treacle, and a good lacing of rum”; the dialogue is similarly rich:

When we reached the first tree, George pulled the lid off his jar, and said, ‘By gow, lad, this smells about ten ‘orse power!’ He dipped in his spatula and tasted it. ‘And it tastes better than t’best Cumberland rum-butter!’

I didn’t believe it, so had to try it myself.

‘Th’art reet!’ I agreed.

Wyatt sought to convey his sense of the everyday sublime while living and working in the woods, surrounded as he was by so much natural beauty. Here, he adds a short and unexpected etymological note:

The word ‘temple’ comes from the root ‘tem’, to cut – a forest clearing. The inspiration of those who made civilization’s first temples and churches all over the world, was the forest. You can see it in the pillars, the arched roofs, the decorated ceilings. For the gods walk in the forest.

The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition, in its appendix of Proto-Indo-European roots, says *tem- had a suffixed form *tem-lo- from which we get “Latin templum, temple, shrine, open place for observation (augury term < ‘place reserved or cut out’), small piece of timber.” It’s a gratifying connection.


Most animals bark a little

May 7, 2012

In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:

[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is “Huh?” in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.

Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.

In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise, and maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.

Marshall Thomas continues:

In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.

“Wading through odours” is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating “garden of exotic flora and fauna”, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.

Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.

*

Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.


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