The other night, Ruth and I were talking about collective nouns (y’know, like a herd of cows or a flock of sheep) and came
up with the somewhat batty idea of solitary nouns. Like collective nouns, but for a singular subject (one cow, sheep, or whatever).
Then, we tried to derive what the words could be. Some of the results write themselves.1
Some of them involve removing one or more letters from the collective noun to invent a shorter word to be the solitary noun.
For others, we really had to stretch the concept by mutating words in ways that “felt right”, using phoenetic spellings, or even inventing collective nouns so that we
could singularise them:
Did I miss any obvious ones?
1 Also consider “parliament of owls” ➔ “politician of owl”, “troop of monkeys” ➔ “soldier
of monkey”, “band of gorillas” ➔ “musician of gorilla”. Hey… is that where that band‘s name come from?
2 Is “cluster of stars” ➔ “luster of star” anything?
3 Ruth enjoyed the singularised “a low of old bollock”, too.
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…
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.
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.
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 goosethey’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.
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 Winchestergoose was to contract a venereal disease, and goosebumps became a slang term for the symptoms of some such
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.
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 apparentlyused 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.
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.
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.
I got into a general life slump recently, and so to try and cheer myself up more, I’ve taken up building fun projects. I joined this industry because I wanted to build things, but I
found that I got so carried away with organising coding events for others, I’d not made time for myself. I started ‘Geese Games’ last year, but I only really got as far as designing a
colour scheme and general layout. I got a bit intimidated by the quiz functionality, so sheepishly put it to one side. This meant that the design was already in place though, and that
I couldn’t get caught up in fussing over design too much. So I figured this would be a good starting point!.
Why geese? I really like geese, and I wanted something super silly, so that I’d not end up taking it too seriously. So I intentionally made a slightly ridiculous design and picked out
some pretty odd types of geese, and got stuck in. It got a bit intense; at one point I got such tech tunnel vision that I accidentally put one goose type in as ‘Great White Frontend
Goose’, went around telling people that there really was such a thing as a ‘great white frontend goose and then later realised I’d actually just made a typo. Little bit awkward… But
it has been good intense, and I’ve had so much fun with this project! Building it has made me pretty happy.
My friend Beverley highlights an important fact about learning to develop your skills as a software engineer: that it’s only fun if you make it fun. Side-projects, whether
useful or silly, are an opportunity to expand your horizons from the comfort of
your own home.