When looking for citations of “mango” the other week, I ran across this intriguing line in Peter King’s Life of John Locke:

Railes and heath-polts, ruffs, and reeves, are excellent meat wherever they can be met with.

The line intrigued me because I didn’t recognize a single one of these creatures.

Clearly, I am no birder. The ruff is still generally known, a bird of the sandpiper family, the female of which is called a reeve. In mating season, the ruff develops a ruff, that is, a ruffle of feathers around its neck. Clearly, the whole set must be varieties of birds. The rail can be any bird of the Rallidae family, still used for landrails and water-rails; the only kind of rail family-member I’d previous heard of was the corncrake. (See “The Echo mocks the Corncrake”, especially the Andy Stewart version – mp3 sample available here.) The heath-polt, or heath-poult, can be any kind of heath-dwelling bird, but was usually used to refer to the black grouse.

That would have been the end of it, except that, in reading through OED entries, I found the entry for ruff [1]. English, ever-versatile, named a particular small freshwater perch the ruff too. (1496, in the first book on fishing printed in England, from the press of Wynkyn de Worde, A treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle: “The ruf is ryght an holsome fysshe”.) Further, it’s an obsolete word for any kind of sea-bream, with examples of its use from c. 1440 to 1668. Finally, it was, for several centuries, a word for sea urchin, attested to in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, named for its spiky texture. (1591, in Percivall’s Spanish Dictionarie: “an hedgehog,..also a fish called a Ruffe”.)

So, the ruff has been both fish and fowl (and echinoderm), but has never been, as far as I know, a good red herring.

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*© S. Worthen 2009