Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/January 1907/Nature Names in America
|NATURE NAMES IN AMERICA|
WHEN Adam, or the cave man, began giving names to the things of the earth and the things of the sky, it was probably with a view to a better personal acquaintance with the objects and for a ready means of conjuring up their images to the mind. In the same spirit a learned professor later defined a system of classification as a series of pegs to hang ideas on. If we are of a mind with Juliet as to the matter of calling a rose by any other name, we accept an undeniable fact, a scientific proposition, but we are at the same time in danger of losing a certain flavor and zest of life, a subtle something in our conscious relation to the things of this world. At least this is true of those of us who are highly endowed with a sense of the fitness of a name for the thing that it stands for. It is more than likely that the man or woman possessing this keen relish for a name will unhesitatingly repudiate the statement of Juliet, preferring rather to live in the delightful delusion of the name itself. It is the conjuring up the image of the thing, the making it a part of the inner conscious self, that has so much to do with the background of our happiness. How could it be otherwise in this age-long association of words and things? Our life is a life of words, and whether we see the printed word, or hear it spoken, it is to us one with the thing itself, and the thing itself is but the word materialized.
This delight in a word for the sake of its associations, though intensely personal, is after all in a large way a matter of race history. What we call the 'mother tongue' an expression that in itself suggests the most vital relation in human life, is the handing down of inherited speech; as important in its way as the transmission of blood and of brain cell. As the bodily substance may change under the influence of new environments, so a language may change under like conditions, and yet each will bear throughout its structure the large features of its ancestry. It is a matter of some interest to trace out the effects of the new world on the thought and speech of the early colonists and the incorporation of any changes thus wrought into the language of the people. In pursuing this inquiry I have directed my attention to the names imposed by the settlers on the natural features of the land and the more familiar living objects, such as plants, mammals and birds. These were obvious features in the physical environment, a knowledge of which was often of the first moment to the pioneer, and their names stand for a certain attitude of thought toward things more or less familiar or things entirely new and strange.
The English stock that colonized the greater part of the Atlantic seaboard of North America, very early left the marks of its language on hill, valley and stream, and on fauna and flora. What objects it did not designate with old world names were called by the names known to the aboriginal peoples—Indian names—usually much altered phonetically. In some instances names were invented directly as expressive of some notable characteristic, and, again, some few were borrowed from the languages of alien settlers. A very large proportion of the names of natural objects in America are transplanted old world names, a fact not at all surprising when we consider the general similarity in topographical features and in the life forms, both plant and animal, of eastern North America and western Europe, notably England. A comparison of the forest trees of North America with those of western Europe shows that a large proportion of the various kinds are common to both sides of the Atlantic. The settlers found much the same aspect of woodland that they had known at home. There were oaks and beeches little different from those of Europe. The same was true of the pines, firs, spruces and larches, and of the birches, alders, aspens and poplars. The maple, elm, ash, plane tree, chestnut, walnut, cherry, hazel and dogwood were broadly recognized as familiar trees, though differing somewhat from their transatlantic representatives. The comparatively few trees that were entirely strange to the early colonists, as the hickory, sassafras, persimmon, magnolia, buckeye and tulip tree, came to be known, for the most part, by their aboriginal names, though much corrupted both in spelling and in speech. The two last named trees—the buckeye and the tulip—were so called, the first from the fancied resemblance of its nut to the eye of a deer (a true backwoodsman's comparison), and the tulip tree from its gorgeous blossoms. Beverley in his 'History of Virginia' (1705) speaks of 'the large Tulip Tree, which we call a Poplar.' The tree is not a poplar, but belongs with the magnolias, and the compound 'tulip poplar,' frequently used at the present time, is an unfortunate misnomer. The general similarity of the forests of eastern North America and western Europe is the result of certain geological conditions, among which was a once more or less continuous land connection between the northern portions of the two continents, together with a climate that allowed of a very wide dispersal of plants and animals. Among mammals, the bear, wolf, fox, deer, hare or rabbit, weasel, otter, badger, beaver, squirrel and others were recognized as being closely allied to similar old world types. But with the curious racoon and opossum, the colonists knew of no European animals in any way like them, and we find John Clayton, in 1693, naïvely writing of the racoon as 'a Species of a Monkey.' Besides racoon and opossum the Algonquin tongue has given us such words as 'skunk,' 'chipmunk' and 'moose.'
The early colonists, Puritan and Cavalier alike, were in the main English yeomen. They came not from the crowded centers, but from the rural districts, and it matters little from what district they came, all had been in touch with nature in England, and planted deep in their hearts was the love of fields and woods. This was not often expressed, it was too deep-seated a sentiment, but we see its workings in many an old chronicle. It was not what in the modern sense might be termed poetic, though there were undoubted poets among them. It was rather the feeling that an unlettered countryman has—a certain inexpressible love for the soil and the things thereof. The English emigrant to America was too much a part of his surroundings to see nature from the poet's point of view. The modern esthetic cult—the love of the beautiful—was not a portion of his mental equipment. He had the inquisitive and acquisitive qualities of mind, the interest in things for the sake of knowing about them, the attitude of the curious, and, above all, an interest in the practical uses of natural products. With this attitude of mind toward nature he set foot upon the shores of the new world. The surroundings that he had left are best pictured in the rural England of Shakespeare's and of Milton's time. The richly green meadow pastures watered by abundant streams, along the banks of which "Walton and his brother anglers loved to loiter in the shade of broad-spreading trees; the rolling uplands and lines of low hills; the deeply ploughed fields and scattered masses of woodland, with here and there a church spire peeping above them; the hedge-rows blossoming with wild flowers and haunted by innumerable song birds; ancient, ivy-mantled towers and drowsy hamlets, with noisy flocks of rooks and daws—these were the elements in a landscape enveloped in the soft atmosphere of an English sky, and with all the endeared associations of home, that the emigrant carried in his mind and heart to America. Little wonder that he sought in his new surroundings for something to remind him of this old home. The forbidding, untrodden wilderness hemmed him in on every side. The puritan found a rugged land and a harsh climate; the cavalier, a more generous display of nature; but each had to wrest wide areas from the wilderness before the landscape could become in any sense domestic. As this domestication of the land went on, the colonists found birds coming about their dwellings, building nests in their gardens and in the shelter of their barns, and they began taking note of many of the wild plants that grew in their neighborhood. By the time some of the earlier accounts were written, the settlers had already made the acquaintance of a number of the more familiar kinds and had given them names. It was the England of Elizabeth that was transplanted in New England and Virginia, and a considerable body of old world folk-lore was a part of this transplanting much of which has come down to us in the names of plants and in the various other forms of speech. Garden-craft and the 'art of simpling' was a part of every housewife's knowledge, and plants were diligently sought for their healing virtues. Knowledge of this kind was also to some extent gained from the Indian inhabitants. In all the earlier descriptions of the new world such objects had a prominent place, together with the character of the land and aboriginal peoples and the advantages for settlement. One can see in these accounts the evident striving of the European mind to find suitable names and to describe an object by its likeness to familiar objects at home.
The few records that we have of the impressions of the earlier colonists are scattered through old journals, letters and histories of travel, and the references to plants and animals are often exceedingly obscure as to the species indicated. The question of the origin of names is at best recondite. Names are part of the folk-lore of peoples; they came into existence far back in a dim past, long before the period of written history. When we do find them gathered in ancient vocabularies, as in the one of Aelfric (955-1020 A.D.), we may be sure that they were even then venerable with age. The new world has added comparatively little to the stock of old world nomenclature. More often an old name has been given to an entirely different thing from the one that it originally stood for, and has been twisted into a new meaning with new associations. Thus the word creek originally meant the tidal estuary of a small river, a place where vessels might find harbor, and it is so used throughout Great Britain to-day. In certain parts of the United States, notably along the middle and southern Atlantic seaboard, the word has been extended to the small tributary of a river throughout its entire course. In England these little inland streams are called 'brooks,' which is clearly their rightful name—shallow water-courses with much tumbling and bickering over stony places. Milton very clearly distinguishes between the two where in 'Paradise Regained'
may be contrasted with the lines in 'Paradise Lost'
Both are here pictured with their characteristic associations, the one as an upland stream, the other as a tidal inlet. In the Bible the word 'creek' is used with perfect clearness as to its meaning in the description of Paul's shipwreck—"And when it was day, they knew not the land: but they discovered a certain creek with a shore, into which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship." Here we have the idea of a harbor in the use of the word. It is possible, I think, to see how our brooks have come to be called 'creeks' when we reflect that south of New England the large rivers have many smaller streams emptying into their tidal waters. The mouths of these are often deep enough to make a shelter for vessels, and they were undoubtedly so used by the early settlers. Hence the term 'creek' and its extension to the entire stream and to other similar streams far inland throughout a wide extent of country.
In portions of the middle Atlantic region the word 'cripple' was formerly used for dense, low-lying thickets, especially in wet ground. As a boy I occasionally heard it applied in this way, and it is quoted by Murray as occurring in the Penn-Logan Correspondence (1705). None of the dictionaries, however, attempt to trace it back to any dialectic source, nor is it given, with like meaning, in the vocabularies of provincial English. In the dialect of east England 'creeple' means to compress or squeeze, which might suggest the notion of a thicket. But words were not coined by the early settlers through mere suggestion; they had an ample supply for every-day use. This word 'cripple,' from its very local character, is undoubtedly a corruption of the Dutch word 'kreupelbosch,' signifying 'underwood,' the Anglicized form having been shortened by dropping the terminal 'bosch,' which means a wood or forest, and is allied to our now obsolete words, bosky and boscage. 'Kreupel' is an adjective meaning lame and suggests a creeping or halting mode of progression as in the common use of the English word. One who toils painfully through thickets with much inward, if not with outward, cursings will appreciate this most expressive word borrowed by our English settlers from their Dutch neighbors on the Hudson.
Swamp is more generally used in the United States than in England. It does not occur in the writings of either Shakespeare or Milton, though some of the minor poets make use of it and it is frequently found in the early descriptions of the colonies. The word implies wet, boggy ground in woods, with rank undergrowth, and is eminently characteristic of the wilder conditions of this country as compared with the more highly cultivated lands of Europe. The settlers, in this instance, had a keen sense of the fitness of the name. They early distinguished the treeless stretches of salt grass along the seacoast and river estuaries by the word marsh. Fen rarely if ever finds its way into American speech and writings, except when used in a poetical sense, as in Longfellow's 'fens of the Dismal Swamp.' Swale appears to have two meanings, a shady spot and a low rise of land. In provincial dialects it means both a vale and a shady place and in Northamptonshire e a gentle rising in the ground.' In the western United States it refers to a boggy depression in a generally level stretch of country, and as a local word in New England it signifies an interval (intervale) or hollow, an umbrageous spot—the haunt of woodcock and other wild folk. Valley has replaced the older 'vale,' which now is found only in the poets' verse, and 'dale' has likewise suffered a decadence save in the northern counties of England. Both vale and dale, however, survive as the terminations of many place-names in England and the United States. Valley seems to be equivalent to the lowland along a river's course, while vale and dale have to do with smaller streams, or more often with woodland hollows. In the following passage there is evidently this view in the writer's mind:
In the south, and to some extent in the western states, the word 'branch' is widely used for brook. Beverley, in his account of Virginia, speaks of 'Gravelly Branches of Chrystal Streams.' Freshet, now synonymous with the overflow or flooding of a stream, was formerly used in the same sense as brook, as in the line of Milton above quoted. The term is said to be locally in use in Maryland to-day. Once when fishing along a small stream in southern Nova Scotia, a young lad who accompanied me remarked that it was 'most too low a freshet for good fishing.' This was a new meaning of the word to one who always had associated it with floods, but it was without doubt a survival, in a slightly altered form, of its original sense. The Anglo-Saxon Fersc, from which the modern English 'fresh' is derived, meant 'on the move,' and was originally applied to 'running' or 'fresh' water. Run, synonymous with brook, is a survival in America of 'rine,' 'rindel' and 'runnel,' of old English dialects.
The word 'rabbit' perpetuates a surprising want of observation on the part of those who first gave this name to the American species. The so-called 'rabbits' of this country are hares, not rabbits. Yet one would argue himself unknown who was pedantic enough to speak of hare-shooting before the 'great unwashed democracy of America.' The true rabbit is an old world species, makes burrows for its habitations, and brings forth helpless, naked young, as every boy knows who has kept tame rabbits. The wild 'cotton-tail' of this country, and all its kin, never burrow, but make a 'form' like the true hares of Europe, and the young are lively, well furred little creatures from the moment of birth.
America has lost some pleasing words which the English heart still holds dear through many delightful associations. Copse and coppice are thus lost to us on this side of the Atlantic. I feel sure that many who live their lives in literature would be glad to call some beloved patch of underwoods a 'coppice,' just for the sake of literary associations. One can do so to himself if he likes, but it is best to say e thicket' to the world at large. And thicket is an old word and a good one too, even when shortened to i thick' as in provincial English. It savors of wilder places than coppice, which refers to underwoods that are annually cut for fuel and which put out fresh shoots each year, while thicket has about it more of the delightful abandon of nature. We are not alone in this matter of lost words in the common speech. In England, as well as in America, the word glade has passed from every-day speech, and more 's the pity, for it is a charming word when associated with its real meaning of an open, sun-lit space in the woods, a place of gladness in the midst of gloom.
The varied features of the American wilderness—swamp and creek, hill, dale and river valley, and over all the forest of a primeval world with its wild life untouched by any hand save that of nature—these waited the coming of a people that would give them, by name and word, a place and part in another world, a world of literature. A large measure of man's curiosity concerning the things of his environment has been directed to finding out the nature and virtues of the divers kinds of plants that seemed to grow mainly for his use and delectation. This plant lore antedates the oldest written history. From the very beginning it has been a part of man's self in the food question and in the healing of bodily ills. The greater number of our wild herbs and trees, as well as the long domesticated varieties, received their names in a time so long past that only the names themselves can reveal their origin. Here is history that outdoes Homer and Herodotus and all the writings of the ancients. In the words of Prior, the author of British Plant Names, we are led, in thinking over these names, "to recall the times from which they date, to picture to ourselves the living figures of our ancestors, to hear them speaking their obsolete dialect, and almost to make the weeds that shadow their grave tell more than their tombstone of its sleeping inhabitants."
The early colonists found many plants in the new world of kinds with which they were more or less familiar. Hence we find a predominance of European names in our American flora. Aside from this, many old world species began shortly to make their appearance in America and soon became naturalized on American soil. It is a matter of some interest to run through a Gray's 'Manual' and note how many of the species are naturalized from Europe. The origins of a large number of our English plant names are involved in a curious attitude of the medieval mind toward the productions of nature. These were regarded as presenting by their forms, colors, or other properties, tokens of the Divine will for the benefit of sinful man. This remarkable idea was embodied in what was known as the doctrine of signatures, and is thus set forth by William Coles in a quaint old work entitled the 'Art of Simpling.'
A name that is dear to us as a welcome of the spring—hepatica— came through this curious belief in signatures. Its three-lobed leaves were supposed to bear some resemblance to the lobes of the liver; hence, according to the doctrine of signatures, the plant must possess virtues that would heal the manifold complaints of that organ. Whitlow grass, the Draba verna of the botanist, was thought to be good for the whitlow or felon. Bloodroot, because of its red juice, could cure the bloody flux. Dandelion, dent de leon, was so called, according to Prior, by one Meyster Wilhelmus, a surgeon, as set forth in the Ortus Sanitatis of 1486, from its wonderful virtue in the curing of disease, likening it to a lion's tooth. Saxifrage, comfrey, birthwort, eyebright, self-heal or heal-all, St. John's-wort, sanicle and a host of other more or less familiar wild flowers, each bore some token of its use in the healing of various diseases.There were many plants, however, that were named for other reasons than that of signature, plants that were not reckoned in the art of simpling. The daisy was the 'eye of day'—dæges-eage—of the old Anglo-Saxons, but the daisy that we know in America—the pest of the farmer and the delight of the wayfarer—is not the daisy of Chaucer and of Shakespeare. It is the great or ox-eye daisy, a plant of a different genus. Why the 'wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow'r' of Britain's fields never gained a foot-hold in this country, while the great, white ox-eye has become naturalized as our American daisy, is one of those questions which the student of distribution has to solve. If we can not have the poet's flower itself we must at least have the name; that is the privilege of our inheritance. It matters little if we give the name to another, even though it be a 'pernicious weed'; the name, aside from the intrinsic beauty of the flower, endows it with a charm that can never fade. Our eastern buttercups are mainly naturalized species. The one that is truly indigenous—the early crowfoot (Ranunculus fascicularis)—grows on rocky hillsides and in open woods, not in fields and meadows. There is little that touches the fancy in either 'butter' or 'cup,' but join the two in one word and you have a picture of green pastures sprinkled with gold. The name is an old one. It appears in early English speech, and some authorities would derive it from 'button-cop,' literally 'button-head,' allied to the French bouton d'or. 'Butter-cup,' however, has survived, possibly by virtue of its golden chalice, and the name must always be associated with childhood and with spring—with delectable places in the heyday of life. King'scups and gold-cups are other old names, and cuckoo-buds was still another epithet given to these flowers, for we find it in old dialects and in poetry—
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue,
Do paint the meadows with delight,
Shakespeare, however, never once mentions 'buttercup' and we are left to infer the fact that it was buttercups that he had in mind, for it is given as such in old vocabularies. Cuckoo-bud is a charming name, and in England is suggestive of the time of year when the cuckoo begins to sing. But, alas, our American cuckoo is a dismal failure as a vocalist, though his morals are unimpeachable, and we have no good reason for calling flowers after him.
A number of familiar plant names occur in the writings of the old herbalists, as in Gerarde's Herbal (1597), and in Parkinson's Paradisi In Sole (1629), which contains 'The Garden of Pleasant Flowers.' Here we find such names as crowfoot, toad-flax, snapdragon, columbine, dittany, golden-rod, dog's-tooth violet and many more that sound pleasantly of wayside places. A large class of names are adoptions, applied to plants more or less different from those that bore the original names in England. Thus 'wake robin,' given locally in Great Britain to a species of arum, has been transferred in America to the species of Trillium. 'Jack-in-the-box,' a local name of the English arum, appears in America as 'jack-in-the-pulpit,' bestowed upon a closely related plant. Name after name of familiar American herbs and trees may thus be traced back to the provincial speech of England. It might even be possible to trace certain of the settlers back to the district in England from which they emigrated by the local names which they gave to certain plants in America. This at least offers an inviting field for the student of folk-lore.
Of the names that are purely American in origin we have a few wellknown examples that have been derived from the Indian peoples. Puccoon seems to have been a general name for plants that furnished a juice used by the natives for dyeing and for decorating their bodies. Clayton in the 'Flora Virginica' (1739) thus designates the bloodroot (Sanguinaria), and it is the common name of several species of gromwell (Lithospermum) which yield a yellowish juice, of the yellowroot (Hydrastis), and also of the poke-weed (Phytolacca) the berries of which stain a deep purple. The word 'poke' is probably a corruption of the original 'puccoon,' as suggested by Bartlett. 'Hickory' is the Anglicized ending of the Algonquin word powcohicora which meant a dish compounded of the kernel of the hickory nut, without reference to the tree itself. Persimmon, sassafras, papaw, catalpa, pipsissewa, pecan, chinquapin, cohosh, maracock (passion flower), kinnikinnik, and others are all more or less garbled forms of aboriginal names. Certain species became known by names suggested from their early association with certain uses or from various peculiarities and properties. Rattlesnake-root and rattlesnake-plantain were greatly esteemed by the native peoples as antidotes for the poison of the reptile. A number of different plants bear the name of 'snake-root' all of them with supposed virtues in curing the bites of serpents. One of them, the Virginia snake-root (Aristolochia Serpentaria), figures in Gerarde's 'Herbal.' "There's the Snake-Root," says Beverley, "so much admired in England for a Cordial, and for being a great Antidote in all Pestilential Distempers." A 'swamp-root' was very early used by the settlers in Virginia for the fever and ague, and the virtues of some plant bearing this name are still exploited, at least in the advertisements of quack doctors. The old chroniclers of America were profound believers in 'simples,' and the early accounts of the country set forth, at considerable length, the medicinal value of various plants. Josselyn, in 'New England's Rarities Discovered,' is a mine of information in this respect. Uses, other than medicinal, have given rise to certain local names. The candle-berry tree—the sweet bay or myrtle of Carolina (Myrica)—was so called from the use of its wax-like berries in the making of candles by the settlers. "If an Accident puts a Candle out, it yields a pleasant Fragrancy to all that are in the Room; insomuch, that nice People often put them out, on purpose to have the Incense of the expiring Snuff."
Such names as squaw-root, papoose root, Seneca snake-root, bowman's root, Osage orange, arrowwood, Indian turnip, and the like, have a decided aboriginal flavor and probably hold a story quite as fascinating as any in the Anglo Saxon lineage. Dim pictures of the life of this vanished people will rise before the mind with many of these plant names. The beautiful native orchids of the genus Cypripedium that grow in remote woodland places, are called by their Indian name of 'moccasin flower' quite as often as by that which allies them to the old world history of plants and men. In Gray's Manual there is a short sentence that to me has a peculiar and indefinable charm, where wild tobacco is spoken of as occurring in 'old fields from New York westward and southward: a relic of cultivation by the Indians.' What a picture in this brief statement of wigwams in the ancient woods, or in sun-lit clearings, with Indian women hoeing among their maize, squashes, and tobacco!
The effort of the early colonists to give familiar titles to the objects which they found in their new home is apparent in the vernacular names bestowed upon a number of our native birds. It was most natural that a bird so well known and so generally beloved as the English robin-redbreast should find a namesake in America, even though very different in habits and appearance. When the engaging birds with russet breasts came about the New England settlements in early spring, and cheerful pipings sounded through the clearings, 'robin' became a term of welcome and endearment, In some early notices of the bird the entire old world name of robin-redbreast was given. 'Daw' was an early name given to the crow blackbird or purple grackle by the settlers in the Middle Colonies and in Virginia. Though but distantly related to the jackdaw of England, this grackle undoubtedly suggested the name from its habit of gathering in colonies about dwellings, where in the tops of tall pines and other shade trees it builds bulky nests. The jackdaw frequents belfrys and towers, but our blackbird has more of the rook in its nature, although a very different bird both in size and general appearance. The flocking of these grackles about the grounds of country houses and the noise of their vernal clatter is a welcome sign of returning spring. It savors of old homesteads in cultivated lands and suggests ancestral holdings, like the rooks in an English spinney or the daws in castle towers. In this vein of thought Lowell says 'they are the best substitute we have for rooks.' 'Blackbird' could only have been suggested by the generally dark color of the bird seen at a distance and in certain lights. There is nothing about our grackle that is in any way like the English blackbird.
A name is frequently the symbol of some striking characteristic as of color, or peculiarity of voice. Bluebird, redbird, yellow warbler, goldfinch and many others are full of color suggestion, while catbird, chat, phœbe, bobolink, towhee, song sparrow, and the like, appeal to the auditory sense. The bluebird, the nearest we have in this country to the English robin-redbreast and quite as lovable a bird in its way, has found a place in literature as it has in the hearts of all true lovers of the countryside. Alexander Wilson, poet and ornithologist, but first of all a poet, felt the charm of this bird when he immortalized its name in sympathetic prose and verse. The cardinal grosbeak was known as 'redbird' to the Virginia settlers, and, later, when much prized in London as a cage bird, its mellow, whistling notes won for it the title of 'Virginia nightingale.' 'Cardinal' has without doubt come into our language through the French of Louisiana, and possibly also, from the West Indies. The final 'grosbeak' is little used in general talk. I have lately heard some persons speak of this bird as the 'Kentucky Cardinal,' an illustration of the influence of literature in idealizing a thing and making it a part of one's emotional assets.
We have nothing in America that quite takes the place of the English skylark and the nightingale. The mockingbird, the thrasher, the bobolink, the wood thrush, the hermit thrush, and the veery are so entirely different in their songs and their surroundings that comparison of any one of them with either of the foreign birds is impossible. Why our great stalking meadow lark ever became a 'lark,' and not a 'starling' as it should be called, is hard to see, unless its liquid spring notes and its nesting in fields appealed to the early settlers in lieu of any other bird better fitted to bear this glorious name. It seems to be a clear case of name transfer for the sake of the name itself. The catbird is damned by such a title. His summer mewings have played an ugly trick on him, for he is a songster of no mean ability. William Bartram quaintly speaks of his endeavors at imitation, 'even in rehearsing the songs, which he attentively listens to, from the shepherdess and rural swain'—words that call up an Arcadian scene that even Theocritus might have loved; a haunt of Pan in days before the smoke and noise of modern industry sullied the sweet air of fields and groves.
The reader may ask—Why all this pother about names? A name is a name, and, though its history be of passing interest, what need further to talk about it? If literature is the reflection of a people's life the words which give it form and substance are a part of the life itself, at least of its emotional and intellectual reactions. Our appreciation of nature comes so largely through literature, and literature has so greatly extended our sympathy toward things natural, both animate and inanimate, that in this world of words we may be said almost to live and move and have our being. This is the plea that is made for the interest in a name; for the better understanding of the really vital part that it plays in human life.
The past fifty years have seen the growth in America of a remarkable interest in nature, not only in its scientific aspects, but in its esthetic appeal as well. The modern cult of l nature study 'is an expression of this interest and as such is altogether salutary. How much this attitude toward nature is fostered by literature is apparent in the mass of matter that has been and is being written upon the subject. Where one person has reached this state of mind through a sort of primitive instinct that takes him out into direct contact with nature, fifty persons have been led into the same happy state through some appreciative writer like Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, Thoreau or Burroughs. A truly good book, one that makes its appeal to the heart, calls us into the open where the whole man is refreshed by nature at first hand. In order to read understanding and sympathetically, one must know the real thing itself, must have had his senses quickened by the thousand influences of wood and field. Then a name will have a meaning to the reader that it never before possessed, and its history will have a meaning when he finds it in the writings of the old world authors. Those of us who are in the middle years of life can remember when our juvenile nature literature was almost entirely English and we became more intimately acquainted with the robin-redbreast and the nightingale, the skylark and the thrush, than we did with our own native birds, whose names were often quite unknown to us. The writings of the English poets and authors from Chaucer down are full of allusions to birds and flowers with which most of us have grown familiar by name only. Shelley's 'Skylark' and Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' have made the names living realities to many who have never seen or heard these birds. There are sweet singers in our own country that must take a place in literature, and their names will be doubly dear to the heart through an intimate acquaintance with the birds themselves. One of the most sympathetic of our modern writers has voiced this thought in an exquisite bit of verse—'The Wood-notes of the Veery.'
If two different birds, or two different flowers, in England and America bear the same name, there is no need to cavil, only to recognize the fact that there is a difference. This extension of the name is in itself a source of great interest; it helps to link us to the life and literature of past generations, and in so doing to develop an intelligent and sympathetic understanding. One might have in mind our crow blackbird when reading Tennyson's poem—'The Blackbird,' and fail to see its truth and beauty, simply by not knowing that there are several birds of this name.
A golden bill! the silver tongue,
Cold February loved, is dry:
Plenty corrupts the melody
That made thee famous once, when young:
No one who knew our blackbird could ever apply this description to him. It more aptly applies to the robin than to any other bird in this country. The golden bill; the silver tongue of our early spring; the corruption of melody when gorged with autumnal fruit; all these are thrush attributes and apply with equal pertinence to both species.
An appreciation of the rightful meaning of a name will go far toward making a true mind picture of the thing itself. A poet like Tennyson was a keen observer of nature, to the slightest detail, and a reader gains the greater pleasure when he divines this quality in the 1 poet's verse. This is not a scientific attitude of mind, not the attitude of a carping critic, but the realization of a certain beauty because of a certain truth—and truth is after all the one thing needful, the only thing that satisfies the soul.
- This same religious significance is found in the term 'lady,' or 'ladies,' applied to many plants both in England and America as a corruption of 'Our Lady,' reference being to the Virgin Mary. From a more remote source, in the old pagan mythology, 'Venus' has survived in certain of our plant names—as in Venus slipper (Cypripedium), Venus comb, Venus looking-glass, etc.
- A great variety of English wild flowers have been called after the cuckoo, but few if any have survived in American speech. The cuckoo's name appears not only among plants, but in numerous other objects and customs as a survival of old English rural life. Thus, the term 'cuckoo-ale' which is found in provincial dialects, is 'ale drank to welcome the cuckoo's return.' "A singular custom," according to Wright, "prevailed not long ago in Shropshire, that as soon as the first cuckoo had been heard, all the laboring classes left work, and assembled to drink what is called the cuckoo ale." The sweet influence of the hedge-row was evidently close to the heart of these simple country folk.
- Dogwood, for example, is a name having no reference to the animal, but is derived from the old English dagge—a skewer, the wood having been used by butchers for this purpose. Witch-hazel has nothing whatever to do with witches, notwithstanding its reputed powers in divination, but is borrowed from the wych-elm, the wood of that tree having been used in making chests called 'wyches.' (Prior.)
- We are indebted to science for this word 'grackle' which is an Anglicized form of the Latin Gracula—a jack daw, a proof that even the scientific mind was biased in favor of recognizing the distant relationship. The black bird of England is a thrush—the ouzel cock or merle of the old English poets.