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January 21, 2007

Animals That Are Also Verbs

Posted by John Baez

This is just for fun — a bit like the puzzles I regularly post, but more open-ended.

I was walking over the bridge over the river Cam one day when it hit me: the verb ‘duck’ is related to the noun ‘duck’! Ducks hunt for food by ducking under the water! It shocked me that I’d never noticed the relation between these two words before. I wondered which came first: the animal or the verb. Did people call these birds ‘ducks’ because they duck under the water, or did they invent the verb ‘duck’ after watching what ducks do?

More generally: which other names of animals are also verbs?

I first thought about this issue while watching a fly fly. I don’t know for sure, but in that case I bet the verb came first. Lots of things fly, but a fly is sort of the minimal entity that can fly: a small speck, essentially a point, that does nothing but fly. Category theorists would call it the ‘terminal object’ in the category of flying things. So, it deserves to be called a fly.

Later, I was pleased to suddenly understand the origin of the adjective ‘dogged’, meaning ‘persistent’. It must come from the verb ‘to dog’, meaning ‘to persistently follow something’. And that, I suddenly realized, is something that dogs are good at!

In this case it seems clear that the animal came before the verb. I just checked that this is correct: ‘dogged’ dates back only to 1779, while the verb ‘to dog’ goes back to 1519 and the noun ‘dog’ just slightly earlier. Before that, Old English for ‘dog’ was ‘hund’, the original Germanic word.

Interestingly, the word ‘dogged’ was formed in a similar way as ‘shrewd’ and ‘crabbed’.

But what other animals are also verbs? How many can you think of?

James Dolan pointed out ‘to weasel’ and ‘to badger’, which made me think of ‘to ferret out’. Weasels, badgers and ferrets are related: they’re all in that fiesty family of mammals called Mustelidae, also including otters, martens, stoats, and the big, bad wolverine:

Picture a weasel – and most of us can do that, for we have met that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity – picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a Wolverine. — Ernest Thompson Seton

Weasels and ferrets dig into burrows to pursue their prey, so weasels can weasel around obstacles and ferrets can ferret out their victims. The verb ‘badger’ is different: it’s not something that badgers do, it’s something that dogs do to badgers… in the evil sport called badger-baiting:

This leads to another puzzle: besides badgers, which other animals are the object rather than the subject of a verb named after them? I can think of two.

Marge, don’t discourage the boy. Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals…except the weasel. — Homer Simpson

Posted at January 21, 2007 4:43 PM UTC

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63 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Speaking of dogs, you can ‘hound’ someone. You could ‘leech’ someone of something. You can ‘bear’ something, but I have no idea if there’s a relation there. You can ‘rat’ someone out.

More generally, you can ‘bug’ someone. You can also ‘fish’ for fishes and other things, too.

Posted by: Aaron Bergman on January 21, 2007 6:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Great! Fish are one of the two ‘passive animals’ I was thinking of, besides badgers: animals that had the misfortune to become verbs describing what we do to them, instead of what they do unto others.

I hadn’t thought about ‘hounding’ — but many kinds of dogs have been bred to carry out various activities, which is a bit different. For example, we’ve got pointers, setters, retrievers, and terriers.

Terriers? No, actually terriers don’t ‘terry’ — their name comes from the French chien terrier, literally ‘earth dog’ — derived from Latin terra — because they pursue their quarry into burrows!

Posted by: John Baez on January 21, 2007 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I don’t think anyone’s mentioned snipe yet.

Actually, this whole thing is slightly weird for me, because I also got curious about verbed animals, about six years ago. Here’s the list I came up with:

dog, hound, bitch, hog, ram, cow, kid, rat (on), rabbit (on), squirrel (away), hare, beaver, weasel (out), ferret (out), wolf (down), fox, ape, monkey (around), badger, gull, lark (about), parrot, duck, swan (around), goose, chicken (out), grouse, torpedo, clam (up), bug, worm (out), snake (up, along, etc), winkle (out)

I think ram, kid and torpedo went via metaphorical extensions of the noun meaning, though.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on January 22, 2007 9:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Great list! ‘Ram’ and ‘kid’ are the kind I like best: animal names that have become so firmly ensconced as verbs that it’s easy to forget they come from animals. Like ‘duck’.

My impression is that the verb ‘hare’ is more British than American — I don’t seem to possess an inborn ability to use it correctly. How do you use it? I vaguely imagine saying “let’s hare on out of here” meaning “let’s get out of here quick”. You wouldn’t say “He was haring,” would you? But maybe you’d say “He was haring down the hallway”?

‘Grouse’ is also nice. I assume the bird came before the verb. But if so, why? Do grouse sit around complaining about missed opportunities?

Is a torpedo a kind of animal? I just thought it was a kind of underwater missile! I vaguely remember that ‘torpedo’ is related to the Latinate word ‘torpid’ meaning ‘sluggish’ — but I have no idea why, since the torpedos fired by German U-boats were anything but torpid!

I don’t know the animal called ‘winkle’ — and I don’t know the verb either! What’s the story here? I know what a ‘periwinkle’ is, but I guess that doesn’t mean ‘around the edges of a winkle’.

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 10:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

John said:

‘Ram’ and ‘kid’ are the kind I like best: animal names that have become so firmly ensconced as verbs that it’s easy to forget they come from animals. Like ‘duck’.

Yeah, I think I even checked the etymology of ram in the dictionary, to make sure it wasn’t a bizarre coincidence.

You wouldn’t say “He was haring,” would you?

No; I think hare has to be followed by some sort of spatial expression, even if it’s only an adverb like “off” or “away”, and “He was haring down the hallway” is even better.

I don’t know about “grouse”. Maybe the bird makes a grumbling noise? But a “torpedo” is an electric fish! (I think it’s the electric ray, not an electric eel.) It certainly makes you torpid! But it also gives you a big and possibly fatal shock, rather like you might suffer if your ship was hit by a large explosive missile.

I think (though I wouldn’t swear to it) that the name “torpedo” was already used for the fish by the actual ancient Romans. People speculated for a long time on how it did its nasty trick, before realising it was electric in the late 18th C, when they had found out how to give big electric shocks artificially. I think the missile was invented in the early 19th century.

I know what a ‘periwinkle’ is, but I guess that doesn’t mean ‘around the edges of a winkle’.

(… much unseemly laughter from the gallery …)

A winkle is a kind of shellfish. You have to “winkle” them out of their shells with a “winkle pin” in order to eat them. This is also the reason for the name “winklepicker” given to a type of shoe with a long pointy toe that was fashionable at one point in (I think) the 60s, and then again in the early 80s. I seem to vaguely recall that winkles used to be a popular snack in the East End of London at one time.

Hmm, and my dictionary tells me that “winkle” is short for “periwinkle”.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on January 23, 2007 7:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I was thinking of this just recently, as my cat was wolfing down his dinner.

You can also worm into/out of things, and chicken out of something, both of which are presumably derived from the animals’ behaviour. A little more tenuously, you can mouse [over/to] a position on a computer screen. You can also carp about something that’s bothering you - although OED says this isn’t related to the fish, so it’s just a homonym.

And finally - although certainly outside the scope of the question! - in online flight simulators you can be vulched by a “vulcher”.

Posted by: Stuart Presnell on January 21, 2007 7:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

OED sez:

[The ME. forms (= duk), correspond to an OE. type *dúcan = MDu., MLG. and LG. dûken (Da. duiken), OHG. tûhhan, MHG. tûchen, G. tauchen, a WGer. strong vb. of 2nd ablaut series (with û instead of eu, iu in pres. stem). This form is still preserved in Sc. douk, dook (duk); but about the middle of the 16th c., it was shortened in Eng. to duck, prob. by assimilation to DUCK n.1 Cf. however MHG. and Ger. ducken (MHG. also tucken, tücken) to duck, dive, etc.:*dukjan; also Sw. dyka to duck, dive.]

for the verb, and

[OE. duce (? dúce), from u- grade of *dúcan to DUCK, dive; cf. Da. duk-and lit. dive-duck (and = duck), Sw. dyk-fågel lit. dive-fowl, diver; and the synonyms under DUCKER1. The phonological history presents some difficulties, esp. owing to uncertainty whether the OE. vowel was u or ú, and the development of the three ME. types: dukke, duk, corresp. to mod. duck; dke, dook, corresp. to mod. Sc. duik (dYk); douke, dowke. Cf., for the forms, BROOK v. and DOVE; and see Luick, Untersuch. zur Engl. Lautgeschichte (1896) §388, 553.]

for the noun. The first sense of the verb is

1. a. To plunge or dive, or suddenly go down under water, and emerge again; to dip the head rapidly under water.

Especially given that the verb shows up in 1340, while the noun does in 967, I read this to say that the verb “to duck” arose to describe the duck’s habit of, well, ducking its head under water to grab a morsel to eat.

Posted by: John Armstrong on January 21, 2007 8:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

We’re animals too: a spacecraft can be manned.

You can ape a behaviour. You can monkey around. You can beaver away. You can crow.

You can be cowed.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2007 9:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

To duck means to do the main thing ducks do, as we humans see it, and to fly means to do the main thing flies do, and so on. What does that say about how we see ourselves when to man means to just be there wait around for something to happen?

Similarly, the verb man is often used as an example of sexist language, but maybe they got the direction wrong!

Posted by: James on January 22, 2007 9:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

[…] the verb man is often used as an example of sexist language, […]

I don’t know how far back the verb goes, but the noun ‘man’ was originally gender-neutral. This is why it’s not so oxymoronic that ‘man’ is half of ‘woman’.

The gendered Old English term, translating to the modern ‘man’, was ‘were’, which today survives primarily as half of ‘werewolf’. For that matter, the Old English for ‘woman’ was ‘wife’, which retains its original meaning in occupation terms like ‘farmwife’ and ‘fishwife’, not to mention the first half of ‘woman’. I’m really not sure what happened in the history of English to mix this stuff up, but it seems clear to me that this would be a better world if it hadn’t!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on January 23, 2007 6:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I like the idea of filling out forms that say “Gender: were or wife?”

Did werewolves have wifewolves?

Posted by: John Baez on January 24, 2007 1:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

“Gender: were or wife?”

Don’t get me started on the misuse of ‘gender’ for ‘sex’! (Or the assumption that there are only two of either.)

Posted by: Toby Bartels on January 24, 2007 4:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Fox the fox
Rat on the rat
You can ape the ape
I know about that

Don’t hog the remote while you’re pigging out on hot dogs. (Don’t start me on “hot-dogging”.)

Posted by: Allen Knutson on January 21, 2007 9:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Can you really ‘fox’ someone? I know you can outfox them, but I’ve never heard of simply ‘foxing’ someone. It’s a bit like how you can lionize someone, but not ‘lion’ them.

A book, however, can be foxed.

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 12:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

This must be another Brit vs US thing. I’d always say “fox” rather than “outfox”. If I knew that outfox was a word - which I’m not convinced that I did - I would have imagined that

fox:outfox :: bid:outbid.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 22, 2007 3:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Tom wrote:

This must be another Brit vs US thing. I’d always say “fox” rather than “outfox”.

Interesting — that would explain why Peter Gabriel used it in the song Allen Knutson quoted:


Fox the fox
Rat on the rat
You can ape the ape
I know about that

So ‘A foxed B’ means that A tricked or outwitted B?

Hmm: I wonder if once upon a time people ‘witted’ other people.

bid:outbid::fox:outfox::wit:outwit ???

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 11:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

You can swan about. You can beetle your brow. You can goose someone. John, is that the second “passive animal” you were thinking of?

Just kidding.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2007 11:14 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Tom wrote:

You can swan about.

Only if you’re British, I think.

You can beetle your brow.

Very good! But why do we call it that? Does your brow then resemble a beetle? That sounds unlikely… but the words ‘mouse’ and ‘muscle’ have a common root, musculus, presumably for a similar reason.

You can goose someone. John, is that the second ‘passive animal’ you were thinking of?

Just kidding.

I’ve never seen anyone try to goose a goose. However, I can imagine a goose trying to goose someone — they’re quite aggressive, and just about the right height. Is that where the verb ‘goose’ comes from? Inquiring minds want to know!

You actually mentioned my second ‘passive animal’ in a previous post: cow. Cows are more likely to be cowed than to cow anybody. A bull will try to bully you, and a buffalo will try to buffalo you — but a cow will rarely ever try to cow you.

I was cowed by some cows when I was a kid — they were so much bigger than me — but I don’t think they tried to do it.

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 12:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Vegetables That Are Also Prepositions

(No, I haven’t got one. Don’t think I didn’t try.)

If you’ve never seen a goose try to goose someone, have you seen a slug try to slug someone?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 22, 2007 8:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Speaking of vegetables that are also prepositions — one of the reasons I started this thread is that I suddenly realized that ‘prune’ is both a fruit and a verb. We have a Japanese apricot, or Prunus mume, in our back yard, and Lisa said she needed to prune the Prunus mume.

“Wow,” I thought. “Can you prune a prune? Which came first, the noun or the verb?”

Sadlly, they seem unrelated: the noun comes from Old French ‘pronne’ meaning ‘plum’, while the verb comes from Old French ‘proignier’ meaning ‘cut back vines’.

Tom wrote:

If you’ve never seen a goose try to goose someone, have you seen a slug try to slug someone?

Yeah, but I didn’t have the patience to stick around and see what happened.

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 11:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

My favourite has to be “buffalo”.

As in Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Posted by: William on January 21, 2007 11:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

That hurts. :-/

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 22, 2007 4:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

German analogs are listed here.

In case anyone cares…

Posted by: urs on January 22, 2007 4:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I’m feeling a bit sorry for the Café regulars who don’t have English as their first language. So, we should open this up to other languages too! They may not be as promiscuous as English when it comes to using nouns directly as verbs (‘verbing’), but they must have some ways of letting animals names become verbs.

In English, there are still some very good one-syllable animal verbs that nobody has mentioned yet.

If we get desperate, we can resort to bad puns: “I’ll lion the bed for a while, and then get up and gopher a cup of coffee”.

However, this really isn’t necessary yet!

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 2:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

If we’re moving to multilingualism, I can mention my favorite group theory paper.

Posted by: John Armstrong on January 22, 2007 2:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

That’s a great paper!

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 11:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

As far as quick dictionary search goes, this is cheating as its a case of animal and verb coming from different linguistic roots (rather than one being dervived from the other), but “swallow” is both an animal and a verb. Likewise, I’m not sure if “crane” (as in, to crane one’s neck) is derived from the bird or not.

Posted by: dave tweed on January 22, 2007 10:29 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I’m feeling a bit sorry for the Café regulars who don’t have English as their first language.

Well, I thought a little about this in my native Brazilian Portuguese. Although we eventually use verbification in our language, at the moment I cannot think of many examples using animals! There is one that comes to my mind:

galinhar => extravasar
to chicken => to extravagate

This is considered a slang, though. And I believe this has a different meaning in English:

to chicken (out) = to lose one’s nerve (Webster’s)

Portuguese directly descends from vulgar latin. It is close to Spanish in some senses, but to my taste, much more beautiful (spoken and written). It is a richer language than English, in my opinion. I like English for being practical, easy to learn (up to, say, intermediate level), and excellent for technical texts. I had to write my thesis in Portuguese. It was terrible, because one tends to flourish more than intended. So it’s a nice language for poets.

Best,
Christine

Posted by: Christine Dantas on January 22, 2007 11:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Yes, Christine — ‘to chicken out’ means ‘to lose one’s nerve’. There’s even a game called ‘chicken’ based on this idea! Quoting William Poundstone:

Like the prisoner’s dilemma, “chicken” is an important model for a diverse range of human conflicts.

The adolescent dare game of chicken came to public attention in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. In the movie, spoiled Los Angeles teenagers drive stolen cars to a cliff and play a game they call a “chickie run.” The game consists of two boys simultaneously driving their cars off the edge of the cliff, jumping out at the last possible moment. The boy who jumps out first is “chicken” and loses.

The plot has one driver’s sleeve getting caught in the door handle. He plunges with his car into the ocean. The movie, and the game, got a lot of publicity in part because the star, James Dean, died in a hot-rodding incident shortly before the film’s release. Dean killed himself and injured two passengers while driving on a public highway at an estimated speed of 100 mph.

For obvious reasons, chicken was never very popular – except in Hollywood. It became almost an obligatory scene of low-budget “juvenile delinquent” films in the years afterward. Wrote film critic Jim Morton (1986), “The number of subsequent films featuring variations on Chicken is staggering. Usually it was used as a device to get rid of the ‘bad’ kid – teens lost their lives driving over cliffs, running into trains, smacking into walls and colliding with each other. The creative abilities of Hollywood scriptwriters were sorely taxed as they struggled to think of new ways to destroy the youth of the nation.”

So, I’m curious to hear that ‘galinhar’ means ‘to extravagate’ in Portuguese.

The problem is — I’ve never heard the verb ‘to extravagate’ in English! I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. I’ll be glad to start using it if you tell me what it means, though.

Does it mean ‘to be extravagant’, or ‘to exaggerate’, or…?

Of course almost every imaginable word has used at least once in English. So, I would not be shocked if someone pulled out a quote from Shakespeare like

Methinks thou dost extravagate, my good Gonzago!

But, it ain’t in common use now.

It’s interesting that you say Portuguese is ‘richer’ than English. I’m pretty sure English has more words. So, maybe you mean some other kind of richness, like ‘colorfulness’?

Portuguese is definitely funkier than Spanish.

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 11:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Is “Gonzago” a man who went to a Jesuit university in Spokane?

Posted by: John Armstrong on January 23, 2007 12:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

John Armstrong wrote:

Is “Gonzago” a man who went to a Jesuit university in Spokane?

Maybe — but I doubt Shakespeare had that in mind when he wrote The Murder of Gonzago.

Posted by: John Baez on January 23, 2007 1:05 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Perhaps I have trusted this dictionary too much:

Extravagate

And richer in the sense of a larger vocabulary. An extreme example:

Saudade

Also, in English you can use the same word meaning different things (specially verbs)! It does happen with Portuguese as well, but much, much less frequently.

Best,
Christine

Posted by: Christine Dantas on January 23, 2007 3:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

After a moment of thought I’m not sure that Portuguese has a larger vocabulary than English… In fact, the contrary may be probably true, given that English is the most spoken language and that so many new words (specially from technology) appear all the time. So I really don’t know why I feel that way! Maybe you are right: it may have to do with “colorfulness” or something like that!

Posted by: Christine Dantas on January 23, 2007 3:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Maybe one of the drawbacks of becoming a universal language is that its use becomes more bland. English as written in the nineteenth century seems more colourful to me.

Posted by: David Corfield on January 23, 2007 4:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I would be shocked if Portuguese had more words than English. English is sort of famous among European languages for its vast vocabulary: the Oxford English Dictionary boasts 600,000 words — nobody can know them all. (Example: I’d never heard the word ‘extravagate’.) This richness is part of why Borges switched from Spanish to English.

David claims that English is blander now than in the 19th century. This is probably true of academic prose. I’m not sure it’s true of fiction — surely not for all of it!

I know that I deliberately limit my vocabulary and idioms when writing This Week’s Finds, posts on the n-Category Café and so on, in order to be understandable by the widest possible audience. The universal language of science is broken English: English as spoken by non-native speakers. So, I deny myself the use of slang, archaisms and erudite allusions, and stick to simple grammatical forms. Even if I try to write flowery prose, I can’t do it like I used to: I’m out of practice.

Posted by: John Baez on January 24, 2007 6:52 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I would be shocked if Portuguese had more words than English

No need to be shocked! According to the “Novo Dicionário Aurélio” (the most complete Portuguese dictionary, I guess) the number of words is about 435,000.

Best,
Christine

Posted by: Christine Dantas on January 24, 2007 3:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

One should generally be suspicious of the word counts claimed by dictionaries (in any language). The people who publish dictionaries have a strong vested interest in counting words in a way that inflates the number as much as possible, because it makes them look bigger and therefore better!

Counting words is a bit of a dubious exercise anyway, unless one is quite precise about what one means by “word”. Do you count separate grammatical forms (“dog”, “dogs”) as different? What about transparent derivations (is “repaint” separate from “paint”?) or not-so-transparent derivations (is “rearrange” a variant of “arrange”?) At what point in its history did “discover” cease to be a variant of “cover”? What about transparent compounds (“shoebox”), not-so-transparent compounds (“blackbird”, “greenhouse”) or opaque compounds (“deadline”)? Or indeed pseudo-compounds (is “raspberry” a variant of “berry”?) And at what point do multiple senses of the same word diverge into separate words with the same sound? Is the “mouth” of a river the same word as the “mouth” of a person? Is the “dog” denoting any member of the species of domestic dogs the same word as the “dog” denoting specifically a male individual (contrasting with “bitch”)? Is “cat” meaning “domestic cat” the same word as “cat” referring to any felid, including lions, etc? At what point in their history exactly did “of” and “off” cease to be the same word?

And how do the writers of jacket copy for dictionaries answer these questions … ?

Posted by: Tim Silverman on January 24, 2007 7:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

The people who publish dictionaries have a strong vested interest in counting words in a way that inflates the number as much as possible, because it makes them look bigger and therefore better!

Well, I will not argue about this, you’re certainly right for most cases. I’ll make, however, a little defense for the Brazilian “Aurélio” dictionary (which represents in fact a series of dictionaries for the adult, young, etc). It is a well-known (in Brazil), respected, carefully written dictionary, started by the now deceased Aurélio Buarque de Holanda Ferreira (sorry, link in Portuguese). He was a member of the Academia Brasileira de Letras (this link in English). It is true that this dictionary is increasing its size with time, but I believe it is mostly due to the fact that we are “importing” English words (mostly from technology) to our language.

In any case, we may have wandered too far away from the main post (sorry about that!). But this diversion did make me think a little more about how we should really define the richness of a language. Perhaps native speakers are naturally comfortable with their own language and may come to the conclusion that his/her native language is “richer” than some other that they do not fully dominate. I do think Portuguese is richer than English, but this could reflect my own bias.

Best,
Christine

Posted by: Christine Dantas on January 24, 2007 10:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

You can also lark around and horse around, you can cock your head, bat your eyelids, snake through the crowds, squirrel away your money, parrot off your verbs, and rabbit on about verb-animals. Oh and if cows don’t do much cowing perhaps they’re more likely to cower?

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on January 22, 2007 7:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

A swift comment on beetle-browed which seems to go back to Langland. One possibility was that it was bitel (sharp) in that the brows jutted sharply out. Beetles might also come from bitel where the sharp would correspond to their ability to bite with their pincers.

However, beetle-browed might refer more to long eyebrow hairs that protruded a long way from the brows, much like the long antennae on beetles.

Either way, the transformation into a verb seems to be a back-formation from beetle-browed (now understood to be jutting) as in the famous line from Hamlet:

“Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff,
That beetles o’er his base into the sea.”

Posted by: Ian Stopher on January 22, 2007 6:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I asked Ian, and he told me this “Langland” has nothing to do with the Langlands program: it’s William Langland, a contemporary of Chaucer who is believed to have written the The Vision of Piers Plowman.

Posted by: John Baez on January 24, 2007 12:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Okay, folks. You’re doing great, coming up with lots of examples that I hadn’t thought about — but there are at least two one-syllable English words that are both commonly used verbs and names of common animals, that you haven’t gotten yet!

Posted by: John Baez on January 22, 2007 11:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Skunk around?

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on January 23, 2007 12:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

We’ve had grousing… lousing?

Posted by: Allan E on January 23, 2007 1:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Allan E. wrote:

We’ve had grousing… lousing?

Do you mean ‘lousing things up’? In the US you can’t just louse; you can only louse things up.

Posted by: John Baez on January 24, 2007 6:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

(at the risk of setting off content filters) buck, bitch, gander, goose, cock, fawn, cow, boar, and sow (same spelling different pronounciation)

Posted by: joat on January 23, 2007 12:57 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

What do you call a fly without wings?

Posted by: stephen on January 23, 2007 1:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

“Bob”

No, wait.. wrong joke..

Posted by: John Armstrong on January 23, 2007 3:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I don’t want to gull you but to pike is a verb, though not often used. However, I think the naming of the fish was after the weapon.

Though not used these days very much (at all) you can bream a boat, though I am not sure if they are related, though the point might be to make the boat as shiny as the scales of a bream *shrug*.

Posted by: Ian Stopher on January 23, 2007 3:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

sponge

Posted by: Phil Gibbs on January 23, 2007 7:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Okay, I can no longer resist giving the two examples I had hinted at before: crow and steer!

They’re both sort of interesting.

A crow can crow, but it’s not the answer most people would give if you asked “what bird crows?” Most people would say a rooster crows — or, if they’re a bit old-fashioned, a cock!

So, at least these days, we don’t usually associate any of these three birds with their corresponding verbs. Sure, a rooster roosts, and a crow crows, but we don’t tend to think about that. We think about how roosters and cocks crow! And what does a cock cock? I guess it cocks a doodle-doo!

The verb cock is actually rather tricky:

Cock (v.) - seeming contradictory senses of “to stand up” (as in “cock one’s ear”), c.1600, and “to bend” (1898) are from the two cock nouns [meaning “rooster” and “part of an old matchlock firearm”]. The first is probably in reference to the posture of the bird’s head or tail, the second to the firearm position. Also, cockeyed (1821 in a literal sense; the meaning “askew, foolish” is first recorded 1896). To cock ones hat carries the notion of “defiant boastfulness” also in M.E. cocken (c.1150) “to fight.”

I also like the word ‘steer’. You can can steer a steer. But which came first, the animal name or the verb? And are they really related? I’ll leave that as a puzzle.

I also can’t resist mentioning another bird-verb: ‘quail’. I have seen quail quail before me as I walked through the countryside — but to my shock, it seems the bird’s name did not give rise to the verb. Believe it or not, the verb is related to ‘quell’ and ‘coagulate’!

Tim Silverman mentioned two other intriguing bird-verbs: ‘grouse’ and ‘snipe’.

It’s not known if the bird ‘grouse’ is etymologically related to the verb ‘grouse’.

For ‘snipe’, the verb is derived from the bird… but the snipe is a passive animal, as this quote from the Online Etymology Dictionary explains:

Snipe (n.) - long-billed marsh bird, c.1325, from O.N. -snipa in myrisnipa “moor snipe;” perhaps a common Gmc. term (cf. O.S. sneppa, M.Du. snippe, Du. snip, O.H.G. snepfa, Ger. Schnepfe “snipe”). The O.E. name was snite, which is of uncertain derivation. An opprobrious term (cf. guttersnipe) since 1604. The verb meaning “to shoot from a hidden place” is first attested 1773 (among British soldiers in India), in allusion to hunting snipe as game; sniper first attested 1824 in the sense of “sharpshooter.”

Posted by: John Baez on January 24, 2007 1:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

John wrote:

Okay, I can no longer resist giving the two examples I had hinted at before: crow and steer!

Here you exhibit an ignorance of the literature that borders on the negligent: as is very well-known, “crow” is due to Leinster (2007).

:-)

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 24, 2007 3:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Whoops! It’s time for me to eat crow:

An article published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1888 claims that, towards the end of the war of 1812, an American went hunting and by accident crossed behind the British lines, where he shot a crow. He was caught by a British officer, who, complimenting him on his fine shooting, persuaded him to hand over his gun. This officer then levelled his gun and said that as a punishment the American must take a bite of the crow. The American obeyed, but when the British officer returned his gun he took his revenge by making him eat the rest of the bird. This is such an inventive novelisation of the phrase’s etymology that it seems a shame to point out that the original expression is not recorded until the 1850s, and that its original form was to eat boiled crow, whereas the story makes no mention of boiling the bird.

Posted by: John Baez on January 25, 2007 4:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Referring to what John wrote here, now more than five years ago:

I also can’t resist mentioning another bird-verb: ‘quail’. I have seen quail quail before me as I walked through the countryside — but to my shock, it seems the bird’s name did not give rise to the verb. Believe it or not, the verb is related to ‘quell’ and ‘coagulate’!

The other day I was doing a crossword puzzle which had ‘quail’ as one of the answers, and then remembered this post and thought that ‘quail’ hadn’t been considered yet, but I see I was wrong! Still, I got a little curious after reading what John wrote, and thought I’d look it up in the OED (2nd edition). They had this to say on the etymology of the verb:

Of uncertain origin. The early spellings and rimes prove a ME quailen (with diphthongal ai), for which there is no obvious source. Phonology, sense, and date are against any connexion with early ME quelen QUELE.

If I’m interpreting this correctly, this note seems to argue against a connection between ‘quail’ and ‘quell’. The verb ‘quele’ they refer to is obsolete (it means “to die”), but apparently it traces back to the Old Saxon quelan, to die a violent death, and according to the dictionary, this or a related form like OTeut kwaljan seems to be the ancestral root of ‘quell’ as well. Well, maybe the guys behind John’s etymological link and the editors of the OED should battle it out, but it sounds to me like the guys at the OED had heard that one before and decided to quell that rumor. :-)

Yeah, etymology… it’s a tough racket.

As for ‘coagulate’, there is an unusual verb ‘quail’ which means “to curdle or coagulate”, but this ‘quail’ seems to be completely different from the usual verb ‘quail’ – AFAICT the two verbs are homonyms and nothing more.

In the same comment, John wrote

I also like the word ‘steer’. You can can steer a steer. But which came first, the animal name or the verb? And are they really related?

I’m skeptical about any tight connection between the verb ‘steer’ and the animal ‘steer’, at least along the lines that the animal suggested the verb because a steer is something you steer or anything like that. Reading from the OED, the etymology of the verb traces back to forms which mean, variously, rudder, helm, stern. The etymology of the noun ultimately traces back to an Indogermanic root st(h)eu meaning “to be fixed or rigid”, and according to some sources the etymology of the verb also traces back to this or something similar, but that’s a far cry from saying that the animal suggested the verb in a straightforward way.

By the way, I hadn’t known that ‘steerage’, as in steerage class, the lowest ticket you can buy as a passenger on an ocean liner, referred to the steering mechanism – I’m pretty sure that my only mental image was of some poor schlub who was standing amongst cattle in the lower decks! :-)

Posted by: Todd Trimble on April 25, 2012 3:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Um…er…sorry to lower the tone but you did ask…

Dogging. There has been some debate over whether or not the phenomenon described by the BBC is anything other than a fiction created by the media.

Posted by: Dan Piponi on January 24, 2007 2:53 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

This is posted over a year after the rest of the thread, which I enjoyed discovering this evening. I don’t know quite what started me off on this today, but with the help of the family (and some on-line verification with Merriam Webster) there are still several other animal verbs that I think have not been mentioned so far. My apologies if I have inadvertently duplicated any already mentioned:

worm lark ram rook drill beaver shark pig whelp snail spawn hawk eagle birdie dab flounder shrimp ant foal cod gull tick cricket seal parrot kid clam perch peacock whale …

Even then, I am sure the list is incomplete - and I recognise is a complete mixture of “real” and coincidental verb forms of animal names. There are also many more homophones and just plain puns. How about “wrenning cats and dogs,” for instance?

BTW, I was initially lured Gander, too, after goose, but it is only a noun, not a verb, as far as I can tell.

Posted by: Andrew Lister on March 13, 2008 10:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

According to the bastion of British boorishness, gander is a verb meaning to wander aimlessly (as a gander does). It dates back to 1687. It seems to be a more modern phenomenon to use it for “taking a glance at” (late 1800s). It also means to wander in speech, something this blog could be accused of from time to time.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on December 10, 2008 8:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

In the state of Michigan, farmers like my mom’s parents used the phrase ‘take a gander at’ to mean ‘take a look at’.

(People from Michigan are also jokingly called ‘Michiganders’, but that’s different.)

Posted by: John Baez on December 10, 2008 8:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I didn’t know it was a Michigan thing
but hten I had a brief sojourn there.
They are also known as Michuganer, but hten…

Posted by: jim stasheff on December 10, 2008 10:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

In the state of Michigan, farmers like my mom’s parents used the phrase ‘take a gander at’ to mean ‘take a look at’.

Ah, but that’s using it as a noun (the clue being the word “a” defined, by that other basition of British boorishness, as “well, it doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”). I thought it was only properly used as a noun, and that “verbing” it was a new phenomenon, but after gandering at the OED, I saw that I was wrong.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on December 11, 2008 11:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

I couldn’t leave this thread (which I encountered due to the Scott’s comment on the Science Citation entry) without mentioning the sign in one of the best Oxford pubs. This pub has fairly low beams and it seems that they use these beams to display the menu for the restaurant. Clearly displayed on one is the legend:

Duck or grouse

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on December 10, 2008 8:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Mole examples? Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

As I mole my way underground, through many moles of organic compounds, I wonder about this animal-derived-verb:

whack-a-mole (verb) : when employees in an office pop up from their cubicles in rapid, random succession that it resembles the popular reflex testing game whack-a-mole, usually this action is caused by curiosity or a disruption in the office
There was much whack-a-moling going on in the office when Daniel got into a screaming match with Ed.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on December 14, 2008 6:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
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Re: Animals That Are Also Verbs

Did anyone mention the bear?

‘Bear with me’ ‘the woman bore a child’

which came first? Animal or verb?

Posted by: Terrence on March 14, 2012 11:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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