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What Were They Looking At? The Problem of Archaic Names

Renaissance explorers carried across the Atlantic preconceptions that affected both their perceptions and the texts they left to posterity. The things they noticed and the things they overlooked, what they understood and what baffled them, were all shaped by the languages and concepts they brought from home. As they tried to comprehend a brave New World where flying fish leaped out of the sea and wingless birds swam under water, they were inevitably constrained by ideas and thought processes carried from Europe.

The most important part of this intellectual baggage was a centuries-old biological vocabulary, names originally coined by Greek and Latin observers in the Mediterranean hundreds of years before. Seeing an osprey dive for fish in Chesapeake Bay or paddling beneath pendulant clouds of hanging moss in a Louisiana bayou, European travelers could only describe their experience in ancient terms preserved in medieval herbals and bestiaries. Although common enough in their own day, their Renaissance names for plants and animals baffle us today.

Consider the following brief mention of New England plants by John Josselyn, who lived in Maine from 1663 to 1671(AJ-107): “Tis true, the Countrie hath no Bonnerets, or Tartarlambs, no glittering coloured Tuleps; but here you have the American Mary-gold, the Earth-nut bearing a princely Flower, the beautiful leaved Pirola, the honied Colibry, etc.” What plants in our parks and gardens was he talking about?

Terms equally unfamiliar to us were widely used for other species, as well: about half the bird names used by the earliest French travelers in Canada and the Mississippi Valley came from one sixteenth-century French ornithology and early English explorers took 90% of their avian vocabulary from Elizabethan ornithological books. Reading their texts, even veteran birders might be hard put to identify a hernshawe, puit, ninmurder, stannel, gripe, or sea-pie-terms which needed no definition to the original readers of early accounts of America.

Many New World plants and animals had no traditional European names at all, leaving observers puzzled about what to call them. Cruising the Atlantic Coast early in the seventeenth century, Captain John Smith found among the familiar waterfowl “. . .some other strange kinds to us unknowne by name.” A generation later, one of the first Dutch settlers in New York noted “falcons, sparrow-hawks, sailing-hawks, castrills, church-hawks, fish-hawks, and several other kinds, for which I have no name.”

This lack of widely accepted names led to vagueness that can make it difficult to identify many species. Not only did some birds have no names, but some names described many birds: “partridge” was applied in different parts of the country to several zoologically distinct species. The result was inaccuracy, ambiguity, and confusion.

Surrounded by ninmurders, Mary-Golds, puits, carcajous, and ortolans, what is twenty-first-century reader to do? Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive historical dictionary of biological nomenclature. For texts in English, the classic Oxford English Dictionary is still the best starting place. It can be usefully supplemented by the recent multi-volume Dictionary of American Regional English.

The editors of any given text may have spent a great deal of effort trying to identify specific ecological terms used in the texts they were issuing. When puzzled, consult footnotes in the modern reprints of an early text, including those editions produced as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century. It may also be necessary to consult academic colleagues in history, area studies, or linguistics in order to unravel the most baffling terms. Finally, some terms simply defy accurate definition-like the mysterious “pirola” flower mentioned by Josselyn.

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