Magpies & Grasshoppers

I was trying to explain the content of this blog to someone the other day, and I said that it combined two states of mind, the magpie and the grasshopper—the magpie’s hoarding of appealing objects, the grasshopper’s leaping from place to place

And that, in a self-referential kind of way, got me thinking about the words magpie and grasshopper.


European magpie
Source

The magpie is a common enough European bird, recognizable by its black-and-white plumage, long tail and rather sinister chuckling call. When I was child you never saw them in Dundee, but during a drive to the west one of them always seemed to show up just outside Glasgow. However, in the last decade they seem to have decided to colonize the Tay estuary, and nowadays I can usually hear a pair of them chortling from the rooftops just down the road.

Their acquisitive nature made them a metaphor for hoarders and collectors, and they gave their name to a 1970s children’s TV programme from Thames Television:

In those days, you were either a follower of the BBC’s staid Blue Peter, or ITV’s very slightly psychedelic Magpie. I was a Magpie kid, and nursed a mild case of the hots for Susan Stranks, who was in every way superior to Blue Peter’s Val Singleton, at least in my estimation.

The magpie was original just called a pie. The word was adopted from Old French pie, which in turn came from the Latin name for the bird, pica (preserved in the Eurasian magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica). If something was particoloured, like the bird, it was pieda word that’s now preserved pretty much single-handedly by the story known in English as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin“. The mysterious piper in the mediaeval story wore a particoloured suit of clothes—in Robert Browning’s version:

His queer long coat from heel to head
Was half of yellow and half of red

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842)

The variation piebald has survived better, in application to particoloured horses (the “bald” bit coming from a very old usage, designating a horse with a white blaze on its forehead).

Some time around the turn of the sixteenth century, there seems to have been a vogue for applying given names to common bird species: so we had a Jenny wren, a Robin redbreast, a Jack daw, a Tom tit … and a Margaret pie. Shakespeare disconcertingly turned this into maggot-pie in Macbeth, but the version that persisted was Mag pie. Eventually (like Jack daw), the old name of the bird was forgotten, and it became just plain magpie.

Its Latin name, pica, is a medical term, designating a desire to eat something that isn’t normally considered food (a reference to the magpie’s supposedly indiscriminate appetite). Under the umbrella of pica fall such practices as coprophagy (eating faeces), geophagy (eating earth), ryphophagy (eating “filth”, which I suppose could involve either or both of the preceding), onychophagy (nail biting) and trichophagy (eating hair). This last practice can give rise to a fibrous mass of undigested hair sitting in the stomach, called a trichobezoar or just bezoar.

Bezoar comes from Persian pad-zahr, “against poison”—the original Persian bezoars were concretions taken from the guts of various ruminants, which were held to prevent poisoning if they were dropped into a cup before drinking from it. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the most prized bezoar was the lapis bezoar orientale, taken from Persian wild goats; inferior products were the lapis bezoar occidentale, from the Peruvian llama, and the German bezoar, from the chamois. And who knows? Maybe the large surface area of those porous concretions really did absorb a bit of poison.


Grasshopper
Source

Grasshoppers, crickets and locusts tend to look alike and behave alike, and together they make up the insect order Orthoptera, “straight wings”. So if you’re not sure whether you have a grasshopper, a cricket or a locust in your hand, you can just nod wisely and call it an orthopter or an orthopteran. Something that resembles an orthopter is orthopterous or orthopteroid.

Grasshopper does what it says on the tin, etymologically speaking, and there’s not much more to add, beyond saying that grasshopperish and grasshoppery are both words meaning “like a grasshopper”, while grasshoppering is living improvidently, like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Cricket is imitative in origin—something that goes krik! in the grass. Something like a cricket, or like the noise a cricket makes, is crickety. As far as we know, the insects have nothing to do with the game of cricket, which instead might possibly derived from a kind of footstool called a cricket, and a ball game called “stool-ball”, which (you’ve guessed it) involved throwing a ball at a stool. Then again, it might not.

Locust is from the Latin locusta, which was a word applied to locusts and grasshoppers, but also to lobsters and other crustaceans. Something pertaining to a locust is either locustal, locustian or locustical, so you’re spoiled for choice there.

From locusta and its Latin application to lobsters, the Spanish got langosta (a lobster or crayfish) and its diminutive langostino, by which they designate the small lobster Nephrops norvegicus, otherwise known in English as the Norwegian lobster or the Dublin Bay prawn. The French went down essentially the same etymological route, using langouste for the crayfish and langoustine for the Norwegian lobster. Langoustine is a name that seems to turn up fairly regularly on menus in the UK these days, except when they’re fried in batter and served with tartare sauce, in which case they’re scampi—the plural of scampo, the Italian word for the Norwegian lobster.

The English word lobster also derives from Latin locusta, which was mangled in Old English to loppestre (presumably by someone quite hard of hearing). Lobstering is fishing for lobsters; lobsterish means “red faced”, like a cooked lobster; and to lobsterize is to walk backwards, in the way lobsters are said to do, by people who have never seen a lobster walking.


And I guess all of the above is as good an example as any, of how this blog tends to be both magpie- and grasshopper-minded.

One thought on “Magpies & Grasshoppers”

  1. Keep blogging ! I love the variety and never knowing what is coming next. My favs. are words and travels/ walks and physics related

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *