Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

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Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.


john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.

Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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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.

Terrence Deacon on language evolution

December 20, 2011

Was it William Burroughs who first described language as a virus from outer space? I’ve always liked the analogy, though it may be more useful to think of language as a symbiont from inner space.

In his book The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon describes the language-as-a-virus metaphor as extreme but helpful. He identifies the most basic principle guiding the design of languages to be “not communicative utility but reproduction — theirs and ours”.

Deacon feels the best way to study language structure is to do so from an evolutionary point of view. Languages have co-evolved with their hosts — us — under the forces of selection. This can help us make sense of children’s precocious rate of linguistic development:

The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds. Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. . . . Language structures that are poorly adapted to this niche simply will not persist for long.

As language emerged in tandem with the human nervous system — each adapting to the other — it drew on existing cognitive abilities. The facility for language is not the responsibility of some dedicated device in the brain but rather is spread across many parts of it.

In his excellent article “Rethinking the natural selection of human language”, Deacon writes that

the neural structures and circuits involved in the production and comprehension of language are homologous to structures found ubiquitously in most monkey and ape brains: old structures performing unprecedented new tricks.

Below is a video of Deacon giving a talk in 2010 called “Language & complexity: Evolution inside out”. It’s quite a technical presentation (I was grateful for my distant background in genetics and developmental biology), but Deacon is a clear and engaging speaker and his subject matter is deeply interesting.

A post at Replicated Typo, reporting on the talk, says Deacon’s ideas are “our best avenue for exploring how language evolved”. Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn is similarly impressed; he writes that the strength of Deacon’s proposal is that it “[describes] a mechanism for the brain changes that support language”:

The old view that language functions are confined to a few regions like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, or even the left hemisphere can no longer stand. Language processing involves complex coordination between multiple systems. But the modern human brain is a relatively recent acquisition. How did all that complexity evolve and become coordinated?

Deacon has some persuasive thoughts on this. Birdsong, some of you will be happy to hear, features quite a lot. The talk lasts about an hour, with a short Q&A at the end.

Gogarty’s Liffey swans

December 17, 2011

Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty was kidnapped at gunpoint by the IRA on a cold winter night in 1923, during the country’s Civil War. His escape is the stuff of modern romantic legend. W. B. Yeats — who thought Gogarty “one of the great lyric poets of his age” — gives the following account of events:

Oliver Gogarty was captured by his enemies, imprisoned in a deserted house on the edge of the Liffey with every prospect of death. Pleading a natural necessity he got into the garden, plunged under a shower of revolver bullets and as he swam the ice-cold December stream promised it, should it land him in safety, two swans. I was present when he fulfilled that vow.

[from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes]

George Moore called Gogarty “author of all the jokes that enable us to live in Dublin”. Even during the abduction his tongue was unstill: on arrival at the house, he is said to have asked his captors whether he should tip the driver. Conduct was for Gogarty “a series of larks”, in Ellmann’s phrase; little wonder there was soon a popular ballad celebrating his Liffey adventure.

But the gift of swans is what I like most about the story, the gesture showing both Gogarty’s poetic sensibility and his talent for myth-making. The Liffey was not just a means of escape but an entity to be honoured with a ceremonial offering of further life (though the swans seemingly took some persuasion to make the river their home).

Who knows, maybe they’re ancestors of the one that nibbled my hand on the other side of the Shannon some decades later.