Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

August 25, 2015

Laura Huxley’s essay ‘Love and Work’ (1962), a transcript and description of a guided psychedelic session she undertook with her husband, Aldous (he took psilocybin, she attended), contains an amusing and unusual expression I’ve encountered in an Irish context but have never heard spoken in person.

Towards the end of the session, Huxley is recalling the woodwork activity he practised as a boy. His school had a carpentry room which the children attended for 2–3 hours of official class time a week. They could also spend free time there, making whatever they wanted – a sledge, a bookcase, a box – and indeed were encouraged to do so.

Laura Huxley records Aldous saying the following:

There was this excellent man who did all the odd jobs around the school, but who was an old-time artisan who got through all this himself. But he was a very shrewd man: it was a pleasure to be with him. And he could talk; and he had delightful phrases – like when he sharpened a tool he said, ‘Now it is sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up.’ But all that is gone now. But what shouldn’t have gone is the perfectly sensible thing of providing boys with something to do.

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Chimpanzee pant-hooting, termiting, and gesture

June 28, 2015

Here are a few items of linguistic interest from In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall’s account of her pioneering study of chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s. I featured In the Shadow of Man in a bookmash a couple of years ago, but that was before I had read it.

Jane van Lawick Goodall - in the shadow of man - book coverTo describe chimpanzees’ practice of fishing for termites (with a twig, vine, grass stem, straw, or finger), Goodall uses various conventional phrases, such as fishing for termites and termite-fishing, which seems the default. But she also verbs termite itself, just as we’ve long done with fish:

As the termite season wore on there could be no doubt that Flo’s older offspring were kidnaping Flint with the deliberate intent of getting their mother to stop, at least for the time being, her endless termiting. […]

Fifi, on the other hand, was a keen termite fisher, and when Flint, wanting to play with his sister, jumped onto her and scattered the insects from her grass stem, she was obviously irritated. Over and over she pushed him away roughly. Fifi still played with Flint frequently herself when she was not termiting . . .

Termites taste a little like cashew nuts, apparently:

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Annals of animals which get ‘who’

May 27, 2015

In a local newspaper some time ago I read about ‘dormice . . . who nest in shrubs and hedgerows’. The grammar of this phrase struck me enough to write a brief post on the different kinds of antecedent for which we use the relative pronouns who, that, and which.

When referring to animals we usually use that or which, reserving who for people, or entities that comprise people. But who may also be used for animate entities with personality or the implication thereof, and this includes non-human animals – even dormice, I was pleased to see.

As the table below shows, who is especially likely to be used with pets, companion animals, or domesticated or very familiar animals. If the creature has been personalized with a name or by establishing its sex, there’s a good chance it will warrant who.

I read another example recently in the very first entry in Paul Anthony Jones’s book Word Drops:

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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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‘Dumb-strike’ in The Goshawk

May 23, 2014

From The Goshawk, T. H. White’s memorable account of his early experiences with falconry:

There was no progress at all that day, and not to go continuously forward was to go back. How often, and for how long periods, did human life suddenly dumb-strike and confuse itself: becoming as it were curdled or criss-crossed, the surface not coherent and the grain influent. This solitary life was one of almost boundless misdirected energy, but even misdirection was a form of direction. For months at a time I was content with that.

T. H. White - The Goshawk - Penguin Modern Classics book coverThe verb dumb-strike struck me, if not dumb, then certainly as unusual. The OED has no record of it, nor do Mark Davies’ huge language corpora, though Google led me to a handful of unhyphenated examples in informal contexts (Twitter, mailing lists) amidst abundant false positives.

Normally of course we see the separable verb phrase strike dumb – and there’s the familiar adjective dumbstruck. White’s innovation is more economical than “strike itself dumb and confuse itself” would have been, but whether it’s clearer than “strike dumb and confuse itself” is open to debate. It’s more interesting at any rate.

Another line of note in White’s book is the following:

We stood in a field, an object of interest to ten young bullocks who surrounded us.

What interests me here is the use of relative pronoun who with non-human subjects, specifically animals. To earn grammatical who status, rather than that or which, generally requires an “implication of personality” as the OED nicely puts it, but in general usage animals often don’t qualify for it.

Cattle definitely meet that requirement, and in The Goshawk are duly treated that way, but it’s good to see the usage anyway.

“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmers Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

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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]


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