Field Etymology

Or armchair natural history….

I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.
~ Hamlet, to those errand boys Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, letting them in on the wink-wink.

Now, if you’re like me when you first came across this line, you wondered “say wha?” I should hope even an adolescent like Hamlet could tell the difference between a hawk and handsaw. But, of course, things are not as they appear. There are some double entendres here, as there are in so much of Wigglestaff’s work, although this one seems rather tame, compared to “the secret parts of Fortune?”/”Faith her privates we” earlier in this same scene.

In the footnotes of my Complete Pelican Shakespeare, Hamlet’s hawk is a “hack,” a mattock or pickax. Meanwhile, many standard sources note that Hamlet’s “handsaw” comes from hernshaw, or heronshaw, a young heron. A hack from a handsaw, a hawk from a heron.

“So it seems reasonable in the days when falconry was a popular sport to consider anyone who confused a hawk with a heron to be rather dimwitted,” says Ernest A. Choate in his delightful Dictionary of American Bird Names. Choate decries the popular etymology that defines hernshaw as a heronry, because shaw can also mean “woods,” as false. He also lists “Big Cranky” as another name for the Great Blue heron.

BTW, my mnemonic to distinguish the near homophones etymology and entomology: the study of insects has an “ent” in it, and, as everyone knows, Ents, who herd trees, like ants (thirteen species of which were found in a study of Manhattan medians).

2 Responses to “Field Etymology”

  1. 1 Nate February 23, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Entomology and Etymology
    I’ve been reading Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell. He talks about ants as being “ganglia on legs” and not being individually capable of understanding much. As a group, ants build intricate hills, leave trails and haul food and dirt around, demonstrating that collectively they’re capable of much more. Anthills have been known to survive for decades. The individual lifespan of an ant being about a month, these ants are living in and working on something that’s existed, relatively, since prehistory. Thomas says that the great anthill that humans have been working on unknowingly since antiquity is language. Just about every word has a history longer and more complex than we could ever understand, as individuals.

  2. 2 mthew February 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Fascinating thoughts. I really must re-read Thomas, since it has been decades.

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