Honk if you love etymology

I’ve been working for the past month or so on an interesting project involving American dialectology as well as some topics closer to my own disciplinary home, but that is turning into a nice little article-length piece of research. Part of it involves a great deal of searching into the origins of some relatively recent words, using Google Book Search, online newspaper archives, and similar resources. You’ll hear about it here when it’s ready.

I’ve also been puttering for the past two months on a little musing intended for my other place, The Phrontistery, on the degree to which Native American loanwords retain their ‘Indianness’ as opposed to other loanwords. To that end I’ve been reading Charles Cutler’s O Brave New Words: Native American Loanwords in Current English, which is an interesting if generally popular account, mostly consisting of word lists with a few lines apiece devoted to various words of interest. But this isn’t about the other essay either – I’ll crosspost it when it’s ready.

No, this is about the intersection of the two in an unlikely word, honk. Cutler (1985: 115) writes:

Henry David Thoreau introduced the verb honk to describe the clangorous sound of migrating Canada geese. “I was starteld by the honking of geese flying low over the woods, like weary travellers,” he wrote in Walden (1854). It seems likely that Thoreau, a connoiseur of Indian speech, adopted this expressive word from Wampanoag or Narragansett honck, gray goose, the Canada goose. (It has been suggested, however, that Thoreau may simply have coined the word as onomapoetic.)

I admit to being extremely skeptical, both because of the lateness of the word’s origin and the obvious onomatopoeia. But that got me to thinking that it wouldn’t be so hard to track down earlier honks. And a little searching confirmed that fact: there are too many honks to mention from English-language publications prior to 1854 – not only could Thoreau not have coined the word, but I think we can figure out where he got it, from work published before his birth.

The earliest honk I was able to track down (which took me all of five minutes) is in fact from 1814, from the eighth volume of Alexander Wilson’s renowned American Ornithology (which I didn’t find directly through GBS, but indirectly since the passage is quoted in an review in the June 1814 issue of the magazine Port Folio, which is accessible:

The flight of the wild geese is heavy and laborious, generally in a straight line, or in two lines approximating to a point, thus, >; in both cases the van is led by an old gander, who every now and then pipes his well-known honk, as if to ask how they come on, and the honk of “all’s well” is generally returned by some of the party.

It’s absolutely crystal clear in the downloadable PDF – so it’s not some wonky OCR giving us a false positive. After that, I don’t find anything until 1825, in an explicit reference to Wilson’s honk, in the discussion of the Canada goose in the journal of Sir William Edward Parry, Appendix to Captain Parry’s journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North West passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, “The cry of this species is imitated by a nasal repetition of the syllable wook, or as Wilson writes it honk (1825: 363).

Now this is interesting – how close were we, one wonders, to wooking geese? At the very least it suggests that however likely English-speakers think it is that honk is onomapoetic, there are numerous other possibilities. After this point, honks abound from 1830-1850. Thoreau was extremely familiar with and owned Wilson’s American Ornithology, so I think it safe to presume that he got it from there. Now the only question is, where did Wilson get it, from an Algonkian source or from an imitative one? The existence of Parry’s wook leads me to lean in the direction of a loanword – honck is, after all, very, very close phonetically and semantically.

So there we have the result of just about an hour’s puttering online. I started searching at 9pm, just before putting my son to bed (which took half an hour out of my research time). We’ve got forty years on the existing OED first quotation, and an interesting intellectual genealogy to follow. And 850 words written, which takes time too.

Beyond this fascinating little story, which after all isn’t of great theoretical or conceptual significance, I wonder whether we (sociolinguists, linguistic anthropologists, dialectologists, etc.) might use this as a neat little teaching exercise, getting our students to track down old words online. I’d think out of every class of 40 students we could get a couple of publishable articles or conference papers, and make real (if small) contributions to the literature. The training needed to do what I did could be conveyed easily in a 90-minute class period. I’m always looking for ways to inspire my students (for many of whom this will be their only linguistics course) to find some love of language. Maybe I’m naive in thinking that students would get a real thrill of discovery from this sort of work, but I don’t think so.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

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