Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Avian etymology

A lot of strange thoughts cross my mind at 7 in the morning before I've had my coffee. There I am, standing out in the yard with a dog on a leash, watching our birds socializing and getting their morning graze on. My thoughts wander and sometimes become very strange and esoteric.

You can tell that the happy event of the recent election is still on my mind. The other night we reshuffled the birds' night quarters so that two years' worth of geese were housed together, and the ducks had more space to themselves in their safety pen. But when we let them all out again in the morning, the younger set of geese bolted away from the older geese and returned to grazing with the ducks they grew up with. It crossed my mind that the new geese caucused with the ducks... and then I groaned because it was so profoundly stupid.

Recently we've been thinking about the inevitable: the fact that we will have to slaughter the one young male duck and an indeterminate number of young male geese. The reason the number is indeterminate is that most of the time you absolutely cannot tell geese from ganders without grabbing them, turning them upside down, and pulling their tails back to (cough) expose their junk. We recently saw this done on Dirty Jobs, but we scoffed at the usually-heroic Mike Rowe because the geese he was grabbing were about half the size of ours. Big deal, bucko--try to hold an Embden without getting your arm chewed off!

Anyway, this caused me to wonder if I had discovered the origin of "taking a gander". Could the expression really have originated with the act of flipping a goose over and looking at its privates to see if it was a boy? Sadly, no--it apparently has more to do with craning your neck the way geese do when they honk. That's possibly the most disappointing etymology I've ever come across. You can't win 'em all.