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.

I think our local red kites were mostly living on roadkill, and the lockdown means they’re not getting fed. They’ve also forgotten how to hunt: this afternoon I watched one get its ass handed to it by a medium-sized crow.

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.

Bald Eagle Trio Seen Taking Turns Caring For Eggs In Illinois Refuge

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Eagle1 webcam showing Starr with Valor I and Valor II

So… two eagles, Valor I (male) and Hope (female) raised some chicks in a nest. Then Valor II (another male) came along and tried to displace Valor I, but he wouldn’t go, so the pair of them both ultimately cooperated in raising Hope’s chicks, even after Hope was driven away by some other eagles. Later, another female, Starr, turned up and Valor I and Valor II are collectively incubating three eggs of hers in the nest.

I’ve known (human) polyamorous networks with origin stories less-complicated than this.

Nigel, the world’s loneliest bird, dies next to the concrete decoy he loved

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Nigel, the world's loneliest bird, dies next to the concrete decoy he loved (Washington Post)

The gannet heeded conservationists' calls to settle on a small New Zealand island. Unfortunately, no eligible ladies did.

Nigel with his concrete decoy gannet

Nigel, a handsome gannet bird who lived on a desolate island off the coast of New Zealand, died suddenly this week. Wherever his soul has landed, the singles scene surely cannot be worse.

The bird was lured to Mana Island five years ago by wildlife officials who, in hopes of establishing a gannet colony there, had placed concrete gannet decoys on cliffsides and broadcast the sound of the species’ calls. Nigel accepted the invitation, arriving in 2013 as the island’s first gannet in 40 years. But none of his brethren joined him.

In the absence of a living love interest, Nigel became enamored with one of the 80 faux birds. He built her — it? — a nest. He groomed her “chilly, concrete feathers . . . year after year after year,” the Guardian reported. He died next to her in that unrequited love nest, the vibrant orange-yellow plumage of his head contrasting, as ever, with the weathered, lemony paint of hers.

“Whether or not he was lonely, he certainly never got anything back, and that must have been [a] very strange experience,” conservation ranger Chris Bell, who also lives on the island, told the paper. “I think we all have a lot of empathy for him, because he had this fairly hopeless situation.”

Urban birds sing at higher pitch than rural ones to help song carry further, research shows.

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Birds that sing their songs at a higher pitch help them travel further in built-up areas.

Previously it was thought that great tits and other common birds sung at a higher pitch in noisy areas to avoid the low pitch noise from traffic and industry.

Now, scientists from Aberystwyth University and the University of Copenhagen have found that it is the buildings that are changing the way that birds sing in cities.

Their new study, published in the journal PLoS One, suggests that urban architecture may be just as important as background noise in shaping how our birds sing.

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland. Because sounds bounce and travel in different ways, birds have to use songs that can cope with this”, says researcher Emily Mockford. “The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer”.

A surprise result also showed that urban songs transmitted more clearly in woodland than the rural songs of the local birds. So why don’t rural birds also sing urban songs?

Dr Rupert Marshall, Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at Aberystwyth University, commented “In woodland where trees and leaves obscure the view, many species of songbird can tell how far away a rival is by how degraded its song is. In cities there are fewer visual obstacles and song doesn’t degrade as quickly, so city birds may just concentrate on being heard”.

City birdsong may be bouncing off the walls – but does it have the X factor?

Spring Is Here: The Gulls Say So

Well, Spring’s finally coming around: the tell tale sign for me is that the black-headed gulls are back. One flew over my head as I crossed the bridge on the way to work this morning; for your reference, they’re the ones that look like this:

Black-headed gull

Their reappearance is a good sign that the weather’s taking a turn for the better, because they bother to fly all the way from the Mediterranean just to hang out on cliffs in the UK and steal chips from British tourists. Kids these days, eh?

The Starling

I have a hard time believing that this story is true: it’s just too crazy – but the photos are good and hard to forge without more resources than your average internet prankster. So, here’s the tale as it was told to me…

There’s a company in the States that sells automatic car washers as a complete solution, including the washing system, cash box, installation of the building, etc. These are completely automated: you drive up, put your money into the machine, then drive through.

In any case; after the installation of a particular one of these machines, the owner noticed that the return from the machine was not so much as should be expected. Diagnostics were run and the cash processor seemed to be okay, so everybody was at a loss. The owner even went so far as to accuse the supplier’s staff of having keys to his cashbox, and returning to the scene to steal the money.

Eventually, at his wits end, the owner set up security cameras to try to catch the thief in the act. Here are some stills from the footage:

Starling on the coin return slot.
The first image. Yes, that’s a starling that’s just landed on the coin return slot.

Starling entering the coin return slot.
And there’s the starling, wriggling in to the coin return slot, where, presumably, it’s pushing it’s way up into the cash box through the return chute.

Starling with coins in beak, leaving the coin return slot.
The starling with some coins!

Starling wriggling free of the coin return slot.
The starling’s dropped a couple of coins, but is still wriggling to get free of the slot with it’s remaining prize.

Apparently, they later determined that it was not one, but several, birds who were robbing the car wash. Following them discovered a cache of loose change on the roof of the car wash and beneath an exposed root of a nearby tree.

So; what do you think – real or fake?