Wednesday, June 28, 2006



Henry David Thoreau, Journals (October 26, 1858, recording a conversation with George Minott):
He says that some call the stake-driver "belcher-squelcher," and some "wollerkertoot." I used to call them "pump-er-gor΄." Some say "slug-toot."
This mystified me, until I realized that Thoreau and Minott were talking about a bird, a sort of heron, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), and not a device to pound fence posts into the ground.

Botaurus presumably comes from Latin bos (ox) and taurus (bull), and must refer to the bittern's booming call. Lentiginosus means freckled or spotted (Val. Max. 1.7.6 ext.: vir lentiginosi oris), from lentigo (freckles), itself from lens (lentil). English lens also comes from Latin lens, because the glass is lentil-shaped.

Woodhouse's English-Greek Dictionary and Edwards' English-Greek Lexicon don't give any ancient Greek equivalents for English freckles. Maybe no ancient Greeks had freckles. I don't have a Greek text of Plutarch's Life of Sulla, which mentions his unusual complexion (2.1., tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
His personal appearance, in general, is given by his statues; but the gleam of his gray eyes, which was terribly sharp and powerful, was rendered even more fearful by the complexion of his face. This was covered with coarse blotches of red, interspersed with white. For this reason, they say, his surname was given him because of his complexion, and it was in allusion to this that a scurrilous jester at Athens made the verse: "Sulla is a mulberry sprinkled o'er with meal."
This doesn't sound quite like freckles, and the dictator L. Cornelius Sulla Felix was a Roman, not a Greek. I don't understand "his surname was given him because of his complexion." The dictator is supposed to be the first to have the name Felix, but what do Felix or Sulla have to do with a spotty face? The name Sulla was already associated with the gens Cornelia before the time of the dictator. Mulberry (μόρον in Greek, morum in Latin) gives no help.

But back to bitterns. Bradford Torrey (who was later to edit Thoreau's journals) wrote an article, "The 'Booming' of the Bittern," The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 6.1 (January 1889) 1-8.

Bitterns are said to be secretive and reclusive, and I don't think I've ever seen or heard one. They are also said to prefer beaver-created wetlands. A little corner of my woodlot in Maine is perennially wet and inhabited by beavers, although wetland seems a rather grandiose name for it.

Google returned no hits for wollerkertoot, a situation I hope this post will remedy.

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