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.


In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, a post about turkey. (It’s also London Restaurant Week. Less relevantly, Chocolate Week in the UK begins today.)

Turkey, the bird, is the most haphazardly named creature I know of. The bird is native to the Americas, to North America or the Yucat√°n, depending on the species. Thus, they were only introduced to the rest of the world in the fifteenth century at the earliest. In no way is the bird from Turkey, even in a period when the term could be used by Western Europeans to describe Muslims generally.

Neither are turkeys related to guinea fowls, which are natives of Africa, although Linneaus classified the North American one as such with the Latin name Meleagris gallopavo, the “guinea fowl chicken-peacock”.

English was not the only language to become geographically disoriented when faced with these birds. In French, the word for them is “dinde”, from “d’Inde”, meaning “of India”. Relatedly, the Dutch word for them, “kalkoen”, which, like the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Estonian words for the animal, is from the Indian city Calicut. The birds are not Indian any more than they are Turkish, although in Turkish they’re called “hindi”. These languages do have the excuse, at least, that the bird comes from what was originally thought to be India, later the West Indies. They were never from Calicut in any way, though.

In Greek, the word is “gallopoula”, meaning a “French chicken”, while in Egyptian Arabic, it’s a Greek chicken. In Arabic more generically, it’s a Roman chicken. (That sounds more inconsistent than it is; it refers to the Eastern half of the Roman empire, which was based at Constantinople.) The Greek might well derive from a confusion between Gallus and gallus, the Latin words for “Gaul/France” and “a chicken”.

One of the vaguely more accurate names – placing the bird on the right landmass at least – is one of my favorites because it pairs so well with the country/bird confusion which English has in Turkey/turkey; which the bird (of the Galliformes, or chicken-shaped, order of animals), inherited from the Latin Gallus/gallus pair; and which is shown in all the variations on India after which it is named. In Portuguese, and in Hindi thanks to past Portuguese influence, the animal is called “peru”, confusing the bird with yet another country. Turkeys were not introduced to Peru until the sixteenth century; they were, you will recall, from further north in the Americas.

Surely there is no animal named after more countries than this one is!

Paysandu potted tongue

H. Rider Haggard is not well-known for product placements (other than for firearms) in his tales of Englishmen having adventures in colonial Africa. This is why mention in Ch. 5 of She (1886) of “Paysandu” potted tongue stood out. His heroes had washed up on the shores of eastern Africa with only preserved goods to see them through.

Then, taking shelter from the sun under some trees, we made a hearty breakfast off a “Paysandu” potted tongue, of which we had brought a good quantity with us, congratulating ourselves loudly on our good fortune in having loaded and provisioned the boat on the previous day before the hurricane destroyed the dhow.

Paysandu potted tongue sustains the characters for a couple of meals before they are able to start hunting the local wildlife. In the same chapter: “So we lighted a lantern, and made our evening meal off another potted tongue in the best fashion that we could”.

Paysandu is a port, and the second largest city in Uruguay. Its potted tongue – and that of Uruguay generally – were military field staples at the end of the nineteenth and, according to this replica website, and through World War I as well. That tongue had a long history as high-status food for sea voyagers is reflected in the tradition, from long before 1703 until 1915, of giving a newly-commissioned captain in the British Royal Navy a cask of ox-tongues. (J. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 121)

While there were other types of containers and preservation methods available, it’s entirely plausible that Holly and his companions, in She, were eating tinned tongue. Delightfully, here is a reproduction of an 1896 label for Paysandu canned ox tongue, as imported to London by McCall & Co. The lively package design would indeed have been an icon of English civility in more ways than one for colonialist travelers washed up after a storm, on the verge of adventure into the unknown

*© S. Worthen 2009