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NatureSpeak Articles

"Crazy old coot" and other weird sayings

I’ve been badgered and skunked. I’ve squirreled things away and met my share of weasels and rats. Maybe I once even described an attractive member of the opposite sex as a fox.

Using animal names to label humans and their traits, especially unattractive ones, has a long history, So is using them to brand products (Mercury Cougar, VW Rabbit, etc.) and, it seems, military operations.

An example of the latter was printed in the headline of a Globe & Mail article last month: "Operation Snipe leaves Americans guffawing over roots of the name." Operation Snipe was the name the British gave one of the anti-Taliban missions in Afghanistan. In spite of the headline, their allies in the US Army were not amused – they thought the Brits were having them on. In the US, according to the Dictionary of American Slang , a snipe is a non-existent bird, and a snipe hunt is a wild goose chase.

The article piqued my interest because, though I know little about birds, I know that snipes exist, and that they live in marshy areas in Whistler. When I first saw one a couple of years ago, not while looking for wild geese, a light bulb went on about the origin of the term sniping.

I only saw the snipe because it erupted from the reeds into a crazy, zigzag flight. When I checked my dictionary, it was no surprise that snipes were once prized as game birds – after all, it was hard enough to keep them in view in my binoculars – and that sniping was originally a term for hunting them. The word was later generalized to mean shooting anything from a hidden place. Another usage, according to Karl Ricker, is to describe someone looking for gold in the cracks between rocks. All in all, not a bad name for a military operation.

References to animals appear often in our day-to-day speech. Many are so ingrained we don’t even realize they refer to animals that live in Whistler. Here are a few examples.

" Thin as a rail ": The rail in this saying refers to a bird not a long, narrow post. Like snipes, Virginia rails live in Whistler’s marshes. They have thin bodies that allow them to navigate through the thick marsh vegetation.

" Crazy old coot ": Although American coots are related to rails, they’re easier to spot because they frequently visit the shores of our local lakes. (They’re the ones that look like black ducks with a comical white bill.) "Coot" is an old Dutch word for waterfowl which dates back to about 1300. So why are coots lumped in with dotty old humans? Good question.

" Shrew ": Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew revolved around a "peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, and turbulent woman." For some reason, the early English dreaded the shy, insect-eating shrew because it was considered to be venomous and evil. But surveys show that of all shrews from the five species that make Whistler home, very few are spiteful or vexatious, and only half are female.

" Naked as a jaybird ": The baby birds you’ll see most often in kids’ books are cute fuzzballs like ducklings and goslings, not baby jays. That’s because jays and many other birds are born without feathers, except maybe for a little line of downy feathers on top of their heads. Picture a tiny, pinkish-grey dinosaur that looks a little like a hung-over Glen Plake – not a pretty sight.

Maybe we should look into the mirror a little more when we come up with sayings. How about replacing "mad as a hornet" with "angry as an ATV"? Or "like a bull in a china shop" with "like an SUV on Highway 99"? You get the idea. No need to flog a dead horse.

Website of the Week: Check out more strange origins of English words at

Upcoming Events:

Sunday July 14 — Squamish Bird Count, 7 a.m.Squamish Estuary Bird Count. Meet at the Howe Sound Inn and Brew Pub in Squamish. All levels of birders are welcome on this half-day event sponsored by the Squamish Estuary Conservation Society.

Sept. 20-22 — Provincial Naturalists Meeting in Whistler . The Whistler Naturalists are hosting this year’s fall meeting of the Federation of B.C. Naturalists and we need some help! This three-day event will include a wide variety of talks and field trips by excellent speakers from our area and beyond.

Written by: Bob Brett


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