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.