Goose-Related Etymologies

My favourite thing about geese… is the etymologies of all the phrases relating to geese. There’s so many, and they’re all amazing. I started reading about one, then – silly goose that I am – found another, and another, and another…

A Canada goose at a waterside accompanied by seven goslings. Photo by Brandon Montrone from Pexels.
Have a gander at this photo.

For example:

  • Barnacle geese are so-called because medieval Europeans believed that they grew out of a kind of barnacle called a goose barnacle, whose shell pattern… kinda, sorta looks like barnacle goose feathers? Barnacle geese breed on remote Arctic islands and so people never saw their chicks, which – coupled with the fact that migration wasn’t understood – lead to a crazy myth that lives on in the species name to this day. Incidentally, this strange belief led to these geese being classified as a fish for the purpose of fasting during Lent, and so permitted. (This from the time period that brought us the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, of course. I’ve written about both previously.)
  • Gooseberries may have a similar etymology. Folks have tried to connect it to old Dutch or Germanic words, but inconclusively: given that they appear at the opposite end of the year to some of the migratory birds goose, the same kind of thinking that gave us “barnacle geese” could be seen as an explanation for gooseberries’ name, too. But really: nobody has a clue about this one. Fun fact: the French name for the fruit is groseille à maquereau, literally “mackerel currant”!
  • A gaggle is the collective noun for geese, seemingly derived from the sound they make. It’s also been used to describe groups of humans, especially if they’re gossiping (and disproportionately directed towards women). “Gaggle” is only correct when the geese are on the ground, by the way: the collective noun for a group of airborne geese is skein or plump depending on whether they’re in a delta shape or not, respectively. What a fascinating and confusing language we have!
  • John Stephen Farmer helps us with a variety of goose-related sexual slang though, because, well, that was his jam. He observes that a goose’s neck was a penis and gooseberries were testicles, goose-grease is vaginal juices. Related: did you ever hear the euphemism for where babies come from “under a gooseberry bush“? It makes a lot more sense when you realise that gooseberry bush was slang for pubic hair.
Face of a gosse, looking into the camera. Other geese can be seen swimming in the background.
Hey there, you big honker.
  • An actor whose performance wasn’t up to scratch might describe the experience of being goosed; that is – hissed at by the crowd. Alternatively, goosing can refer to a a pinch on the buttocks possibly in reference to geese pecking humans at about that same height.
  • If you have a gander at something you take a good look at it. Some have claimed that this is rhyming slang – “have a look” coming from “gander and duck” – but I don’t buy it. Firstly, why wouldn’t it be “goose and duck” (or “gander and drake“, which doesn’t rhyme with “look” at all). And fake, retroactively-described rhyming roots are very common: so-called mockney rhyming slang! I suspect it’s inspired by the way a goose cranes its neck to peer at something that interests it! (“Crane” as a verb is of course also a bird-inspired word!)
  • Goosebumps might appear on your skin when you’re cold or scared, and the name alludes to the appearance of plucked poultry. Many languages use geese, but some use chickens (e.g. French chair de poule, “chicken flesh”). Fun fact: Slavic languages often use anthills as the metaphor for goosebumps, such as Russian мурашки по коже (“anthill skin”). Recently, people talk of tapping into goosebumps if they’re using their fear as a motivator.
  • A tailor’s goose is a traditional kind of iron so-named for the shape of its handle.
  • The childrens game of duck duck goose is played by declaring somebody to be a “goose” and then running away before they catch you. Chasing – or at risk of being chased by! – geese is common in metaphors: if somebody wouldn’t say boo to a goose they’re timid. A wild goose chase (yet another of the many phrases for which we can possibly thank Shakespeare, although he probably only popularised this one) begins without consideration of where it might end up.
A Canada goose and young gosling swim together, side-by-side. Photo by Erick Todd from Pexels.
If humans tell children they were found under a gooseberry bush, where do geese tell their chicks they came from?
  • If those children are like their parents, you might observe that a wild goose never laid a tame egg: that traits are inherited and predetermined.
  • Until 1889, the area between Blackfriars and Tower Bridge in London – basically everything around Borough tube station up to the river – was considered to be outside the jurisdiction of both London and Surrey, and fell under the authority of the Bishop of Winchester. For a few hundred years it was the go-to place to find a prostitute South of the Thames, because the Bishop would license them to be able to trade there. These prostitutes were known as Winchester geese. As a result, to be bitten by a Winchester goose was to contract a venereal disease, and goosebumps became a slang term for the symptoms of some such diseases.
  • Perennial achillea ptarmica is known, among other names, as goose tongue, and I don’t know why. The shape of the plant isn’t particularly similar to that of a goose’s tongue, so I think it might instead relate to the effect of chewing the leaves, which release a spicy oil that might make your tongue feel “pecked”? Goose tongue can also refer to plantago maritima, whose dense rosettes do look a little like goose tongues, I guess. Honestly, I’ve no clue about this one.
  • If you’re sailing directly downwind, you might goose-wing your sails, putting the mainsail away from the wind and the jib towards it, for balance and to easily maintain your direction. Of course, a modern triangular-sailed boat usually goes faster broad reach (i.e. at an angle of about 45º to the wind) by enough that it’s faster to zig-zag downwind rather than go directly downwind, but I can see how one might sometimes want to try this anatidaetian maneuver.
Plaque with a picture of a goose running and text: "Cross Bones Graveyard. In medieval times this was an unconsecreated graveyard for prostitutes of 'Winchester Geese'. By the 18th century it had become a paupers burial ground, which closed in 1853. Here, local people have created a memorial shrine. The Outcast Dead R.I.P." A smiley face sticker has been attached to the plaque and ribbons and silk flowers are tied nearby.
I feel like the “Cross Bones Graveyard” ought to have been where pirates were buried, but prostitutes is pretty good too.

Geese make their way all over our vocabulary. If it’s snowing, the old woman is plucking her goose. If it’s fair to give two people the same thing (and especially if one might consider not doing so on account of their sex), you might say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,  which apparently used to use the word “sauce” instead of “good”. I’ve no idea where the idea of cooking someone’s goose comes from, nor why anybody thinks that a goose step march might look anything like the way a goose walks waddles.

With apologies to Beverley, whose appreciation of geese (my take, previously) is something else entirely but might well have got me thinking about this in the first instance.

The Great Flamingo Uprising

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I told this story to a few guildies a while back and decided to archive it in a longer format; so here is the story of The Great Flamingo Uprising of 2010 as told to me by my favorite cousin who was a keeper at the time.

In addition to the aviary/jungle exhibit, our zoo has several species of birds that pretty much have the run of the place. They started with a small flock of flamingos and some free-range peacocks that I’m almost certain came from my old piano teacher’s farm. She preferred them to chickens. At some point in time they also acquired a pair of white swans (“hellbirds”) and some ornamental asian duckies to decorate the pond next to the picnic area. Pigeons, crows, assorted ducks and a large number of opportunistic Canada geese moved in on their own.

I lost it at the bit where the koi blooped again.

Morals: geese are evil, swans are eviler, flamingos and peacocks are weird as fuck, and this story’s hilarious.

The Legend of the Homicidal Fire-Proof Salamander

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In the first century AD, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder threw a salamander into a fire. He wanted to see if it could indeed not only survive the flames, but extinguish them, as Aristotle had claimed such creatures could. But the salamander didn’t … uh … make it.

Yet that didn’t stop the legend of the fire-proof salamander (a name derived from the Persian meaning “fire within”) from persisting for 1,500 more years, from the Ancient Romans to the Middle Ages on up to the alchemists of the Renaissance. Some even believed it was born in fire, like the legendary Phoenix, only slimier and a bit less dramatic. And that its fur (huh?) could be used to weave fire-resistant garments.

Back when the world felt bigger and more-mysterious it was easier for people to come to the conclusion, based on half-understood stories passed-on many times, that creatures like unicorns, dragons, and whatever the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was supposed to be, might exist just beyond the horizons. Nature was full of mystery and the simple answer – that salamanders might live in logs and then run to escape when those logs are thrown onto a fire – was far less-appealing than the idea that they might be born from the fire itself! Let’s not forget that well into the Middle Ages it was widely believed that many forms of life appeared not through reproduction but by spontaneous generation: clams forming themselves out of sand, maggots out of meat, and so on… with this underlying philosophy, it’s easy to make the leap that sure, amphibians from fire makes sense too, right?

Perhaps my favourite example of such things is the barnacle goose, which – prior to the realisation that birds migrate and coupled with them never being seen to nest in England – lead to the widespread belief that they spontaneously developed (at the appropriate point in the season) from shellfish… this may be the root of the word “barnacle” as used to describe the filter-feeders with which we’re familiar. So prevalent was this belief that well into the 15th century (and in some parts of the world the late 18th century) this particular species of goose was treated as being a fish, not a bird, for the purpose of Christian fast-days.

Anyway; that diversion aside, this article’s an interesting look at the history of mythological beliefs about salamanders.

Goat LARP

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Goats are the main characters. You are the supporting cast.

This game is about running mind-blowing live action experiences for goats. You will act as director and storyteller, transporting the goats to an unforgettable dream world of mystery and magic, etc etc.

Goat Larp is one part larp, one part hangout-with-animals-and-take-silly-pictures. In some ways, we are roleplaying that this is a larp.

The Goat Larp Rulebook

Rule number 1 through 100 is BE NICE TO THE GOATS.

Your Character

Show up at the farm dressed as any character you want. You could be an elf, a steampunk, the mayor of space, Hulk Hogan, Darth Vader, whatever.

Your character has no knowledge of how you got to this mystical goat farm, but you can sense that these goats are IMPORTANT. They need to be entertained. You need to run a larp for them.

Goat Activity Cards

There will be a stack of Goat Activity Cards. They are suggestions for activities you can do with the goats. For example:

One goat plays as Frodo, another will be Sauron. Use lawn posts to mark off an area representing Mount Doom. If Frodo visits Mount Doom before Sauron touches him, the world is saved. If Sauron touches Frodo, all is lost.

Another example:

President Goat’s cabinet must advise them on an important decision. The fate of the world is in this goat’s hands. One post is labeled “World Peace”, another post is labeled “Nuke Everything”. If President Goat bumps into a post, their decision is made.

Both teams may try to persuade the goats using any (safe) means they can come up. You are encouraged to ham it up, over-act, and monologue about what’s going on. This gives the goats a nice, immersive experience.

You may also come up with your own quests. In fact, you should, because most of the stuff we’re writing is garbage.

You can read more ideas for Goat Activities here.

Oh, I thought: it’s LARPing but with goats. You know, like Goat Yoga is yoga but with goats. Okay, fair enough: whatever floats your goat…

…but no, I was wrong. This isn’t so much LARPing with goats as LARPing for goats. As in: the goats are the player chatacters; any humans that happen to come along are mobs there for the entertainment of the goats.

The Internet remains a strange and wonderful window into a strange and wonderful world.

So, a shipment of crickets for the lizard arrived via FedEx today…

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So, a shipment of crickets for the lizard arrived via FedEx today. It was my first time ordering bulk crickets off the internet, and I naively assumed that they would be in like, a bag or some other contraption to facilitate easy transfer to another container. They were not.

They were in a cardboard box. And I cut the tape and opened the box and SURPRISE! Crickets everywhere. It was the middle of the workday and I didn’t have time to deal with cricket logistics, so I put the tape back on the box.

And then I put the box in the upstairs bathroom, the only semi-contained place in the house where I knew the kids and the cats and the dogs wouldn’t be able to get at the box and tear it open and unleash 250 hungry crickets into our warm, semi-humid environment.

About 20 minutes later I’m back at work on my computer, and I hear my wife in the kitchen: “where are these goddamn crickets coming from.” I freely admit I had not kept her fully up-to-date on my cricket purchasing plans.

And at first I was like “okay, maybe one or two got out when I initially opened the box. No biggie.” I kept working.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was a mistake.

I’m trying to wrap up a story but I keep hearing cricket-related exclamations coming from the kitchen. Eventually I get up to investigate. I say, “So uh the crickets got here toda–”

“I REALIZE THAT,” she says. “WHY ARE THEY ALL OVER THE KITCHEN”

I say “That’s a good question. Let me check something.” I walk over to the bathroom. I open the door. There are crickets. Everywhere.
Crickets on the floor. Crickets on the walls. Crickets in the sink. Crickets in the toilet.

For some reason my first instinct is to flush the toilet, as if that will do anything to solve the problem of crickets in all the other places that were not the toilet. I shut the door. “Uh, don’t come in here!” I try to sound cheerful.

Apparently I had not sealed the box shut as well as I should have. I ended up rushing out to the shed, in the 18″ of snow and below zero temperatures, to pick up a spare aquarium we had. I spent about 45 minutes collecting crickets from the bathroom.

Of course by this point many had migrated elsewhere. They were in the closet. In the shoes. Making their way downstairs to the playroom. The cats were having what I can only imagine was the greatest day of their lives.

I tried to collect all of them. It was like the world’s shittiest game of Pokemon. But here we are, roughly 10 hours after the initial catastrophe, and stray crickets are still turning up in odd places.

I make this information public because if I do not send any tweets tomorrow, it is because my wife murdered me after finding a cricket in our bed in the middle of the night.

And that’s the news from Red Lake Falls.
Good afternoon everyone.

I’m pleased to report that I’m still alive, and that my marriage is still intact! You all had so much fun with this that my editor made me turn it into a story, which I present to you here, as a sort of director’s cut of this thread.

To all you monsters who demanded photos of the infestation: believe it or not, while a horde of crickets was marauding through my house I did not think to whip out my phone and start snapping pics

I mean, can you imagine?
Wife: THERE’S A CRICKET IN MY PUMPKIN PIE
Me: This is tremendous content, where’s my phone

But I’m glad you all enjoyed our suffering, we’ve been laughing our asses off at your responses all day which almost makes it all worth it. To my new followers, I look forward to disappointing you in 2019.

Speaking as somebody who’s previously managed to accidentally infest a house with crickets, I feel this guy’s pain. We tried to ignore ours, thinking that they’d die out in the winter, but instead they just huddled into the warmest, least-accessible places in the house, such as under the fireplace and the fridge-freezer, and continued their incessant chirping. It was only when we started putting down ant poison that we began to bring the plague under control.

Best mimicry ever

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From Real Monstrosities via Ed Yong via Matthew Cobb comes one of the best cases of mimicry I’ve ever seen. Natural selection has been a fantastic artist here, giving a perfect illusion of three-dimensionality. In fact, this may be the most astonishing case of mimicry I know.

It’s a moth from eastern Asia: Uropyia meticulodina—a fantastic dead-leaf mimic:

Uropyia meticulodina

What I love about this thing is that it looks 3D. Even looking at photos or videos of the beast, your eyes will deceive you: its wings and back are flat, but look like a dried-up and curled-up leaf. Incredible.

Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo and Wild Wolves

It’s been a while since I last hid geocache containers and it felt like it was time I gave a back some more to the community, especially as the “village” I live in has a lower cache density than it deserves (conversely, Oxford City Centre is chock-full of uninspiring magnetic nanos – although it’s improving – and saturated with puzzle caches that ultimately require a trek well outside the ring road). I’ve never been a heavyweight score-counting ‘cacher, but I’ve always had a soft spot for nice containers as large as their hiding place will permit coupled with well thought-out pieces of local interest, and that’s the kind of cache I wanted to add to my local area.

Annabel helps hunt for a place to hide a small clip-lock box (with attached chain).
Plus, my second-smallest caching-buddy was keen on getting involved with hiding containers rather than just finding them for me.

So imagine my joy when I discover a little-known piece of history about my village: that for a few years in the 1930s, we used to have a zoo! And I’m not talking about something on the scale of that place with the meercats that we used to go to: I’m talking about a proper zoo with lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). Attractions like Rosie the elephant and Hanno the lion would get mentioned in the local newspapers at every excuse, and a special bus service connected Oxford city centre to the entrance to the zoo, just outside then (then much-smaller) Kidlington village.

Entrance to Oxford Zoo
I’ve stood at the spot from which this photo was taken, and I couldn’t recognise it. A new boulevard, houses, a police station and a leisure centre dominate the view today.

Taking advantage of my readers’ card at the Bodleian Library, I was able to find newspapers and books and piece together the history of this short-lived place. Of particular interest were the unusual events of January 1937, when three wolves escaped from the zoo and caused chaos in the surrounding village and farms for several days. In a tale that sounds almost like a Marvel Comic origin story, the third wolf was eventually shot by local press photographer Johnny Johnson who chased the animal down on a borrowed bicycle.

Graph of the wild wolf population of Oxfordshire
Wild wolves in Oxfordshire were driven to extinction in the 16th century, but made a tiny comeback for a few days in the 1930s.

This formed the essence of our new geocaches: we planned four geocaches –

  1. Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo (GC7Q96B / OK0456), representing the zoo and hidden at a corner of what used to be the grounds
  2. Oxford’s Wild Wolf One (GC7Q9E6 / OK0457), representing the first escaped wolf and hidden near to a garden it jumped into
  3. Oxford’s Wild Wolf Two (GC7Q9FF / OK0458), representing the second escaped wolf and hidden near to where it was shot by a farmer and his son
  4. Oxford’s Wild Wolf Three – not yet placed, but we’re planning a multicache series that follows places that the third wolf might have travelled through during its extended escape (the third wolf managed to stay at large for long enough to allegedly kill 13 sheep)
Decorated ammo can cache
Sticking to my aim of larger, higher-quality caches, the “zoo” cache is a decorated ammo can filled with toy animals.

Soon after the first three caches went live they were found by a local ‘cacher whose hides I’ve enjoyed before. She had nice things to say about the series, so that’s a good sign that we’re thinking in the right kind of direction. The bobbin – who’s taken a bit of an interest in local history this month and keeps now asking about the ages of buildings and where roads used to go and things – is continuing to help me set out places to hide the parts of the final cache in the series, Oxford’s Wild Wolf Three, so further excitement no-doubt awaits.