Monday, August 22, 2016

What's in a name? Etymology for #phenology

A talented artist and writer named Douglas Gayeton has created
THE LEXICON OF SUSTAINABILITY™...
based on a simple premise: people will live more sustainably if they understand the most basic terms and principles that will define the next economy.
He has also written a book by the title of Local, about which Anne Lappe writes "...Douglas Gayeton gives name to the world we want and in so doing helps us create it."

Recently, I've been rereading my copy of Local at the same time that I'm rereading Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape. I thought I had discovered a technical error in Home Ground's description of "batture," referring to an "elevated riverbed between levees." According to Wikipedia, that (riverbed elevation) indeed does occur in the lower Mississippi River, among other places. (Listen carefully in the background and you can here Peter, Paul and Mary singing Pete Seeger's Where have all the flowers gone, with the refrain "when will they he ever learn.")

Since before I read Shallow Water Dictionary I've been increasingly intrigued with regional and/or local terms. In fly-fishing, local insects often have a variety of different names in various parts of the world, or different insects may have the same name. Plants frequently have common names that change as they're encountered in different locations. The Linnaean system of scientific nomenclature is supposed to resolve this issue in Latin but many of us are subpar citizen scientists who remain overly reliant on common names. ("Latin's a dead language, just as dead as it can be. First it killed the Romans and now it's killing me." is a ditty I recall from high school.)

a field of purple love grass
a field of purple love grass
Photo by J. Harrington

It seems to me that federal and state agencies semi-encourage our reliance on common names when they list alternative names for flora or fauna in their reference material. Sometimes, would-be poets contribute to the confusion by looking at a common name, taking what they consider to be an adjective, instead of part of a common name noun, and transferring it to an alternative common name. Here's a recent example:

There are at least (only?) two varieties of love grass: weeping lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees (Poaceae) [8,56]) and purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis (Pursh) Steud). Purple lovegrass also has the common name of tumble grass. Now, being more oriented toward the humanities in general and English in particular,  I proceeded to consider "purple" an adjective describing the noun lovegrass, instead of being the first of a part of a common name. I therefore felt on Home Ground when I referred to purple tumble grass. However, a Google search reveals that My Minnesota seems to be one of the few places on the internet that refers to tumble grass as "purple tumble grass" instead of "purple lovegrass, tumble grass."

In our defense, we note that several years ago we acquired an official artistic license, and have long held a poetic license. Changing nouns to adjectives, or vice versa, is covered, we believe, by both licenses. On the other hand, it appears that the tumbling part of the grass isn't the purple leaves, but the golden seed heads. Perhaps we should focus on enhancing assonance and alliteration instead of another confusing and confused alias?

Bemidji Blues

By Sean Hill

For Arnold Rampersad

Shadows bluing the snow, the pines’ and mine,
bear the cast of a kestrel’s blue-gray crown
I note as I find my way about this town.

Blues here more likely the Nordic-eyes kind
than the blue-black of some Black folk back home.
Here so many lakes reflect the sky’s blue dome;

some summer days skimmed-milk blue tints windblown
whitecaps. Blue’s an adjective, verb, and noun,
and the color of the world when I pine

because she’s gone leaving too much wine and time.
Blue shadows on the snow, mine and the pines’.
For a tall man, blue ox, and now me, home

is Bemidji, though the blues here around
more the cast of a kestrel’s blue-gray crown
than the blue-black of my cousins back home.


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