Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On early birds, late owls and word surgery. A long linguistic journey.

You know how the early bird catches the worm? No, this is not another post on how happy worms are, or are not, or even how fresh they are (thanks richard for that image). I want to talk about the bird itself. You see, in English, we have this early bird, and in addition to other things (like waking up the neighborhood), he catches the worm. This, we understand, is some kind of prize for having awakened early, and from an early age we are taught to prize this behavior, and are even told, upon retrieving the plastic piece of crap hidden at the bottom of the cereal box before our later-rising siblings, that we have shown ourselves to be the early bird. Worms, plastic crap, it's all the same to me. Don't really have much of a use for any of it, though if I had a garden I'd be all over the worms. Or something.

So the early bird, and his opposite, the late owl. It works for us. We're confident that there's a bird somewhere, all metaphor and simile and tiny beating wings that awakens early. And his counterpart, the owl. It's a tidy story. But I've always wondered what kind of bird the early bird was.

But since I now live in Chile, the land of answers and not one, but two names for figs (and owls, but I'll get to that later) I no longer have to worry about what kind of bird it is. Because in Chile we don't have early birds and late owls, we have alondras and lechuzas.

I know what lechuzas look like, as I was lucky enough to see one perched on a post along a long descent towards the beach Matanzas, which is famous as a kitesurfing location and is not far from the mouth of the Rio Rapel, which dumps into the ocean in a splendid open maw. The lechuza was a tiny owl, smooth-headed and silent, perched stock still atop his post, as if to say, mosey on, nothing to see here (and there wasn't, as dusk was upon us, and the light was fading fast.) The other word for an owl in Spanish is buho, which has feathers pointing up in the area where you'd expect the ears to be. It's also the brand of a lot of school supplies here in Chile, and somewhat of a pain to say. I always remembered it by remembering this artist, who I briefly went to college with and ran into on I-5 pumping gas into his car, headed southbound, and I was headed back north from Los Angeles one fall when I was living in San Francisco. The gas station is on the median strip, and if he's now getting hits from this blog, I can assure you he is saying what? who? (no pun intended).

Lechuza was a harder word for me to get my brain around. Every time it came up, I needed to build it from scratch, like a physics formula from my hyper over sciencified high-school (humanities people, I'm all about the words!). But at least a lechuza is easy to build, if you have some lettuce (lechuga) and some hake (merluza, a kind of fish) handy. You glue them together, trim off the excess, and poof, a lechuza! As they do tend to lay in wait for their preferred rodent prey, you have lots of time for this word art project, especially if you notice their weird round-headed silhouette first.

Visit this guy's flickr page if you want to see what I mean by the smooth head. Seriously dude, where are your little earlets?

What what of the alondra? Remember her? In English we are satisfied to just have an early bird, and not know her name. Remember? worms! plastic crap! I had to come home and ask Dr. Google, who also doubles as a wildlife biologist. Imagine my surprise when I learned that an alondra is none other than... a lark. (see picture here).

See, the Chileans have it all wrong. Not early, happy! Larks are happy! Happy as a lark. Oh no, but they have happy worms (remember that?). So I guess that alondras can wake up early if they must. Maybe all the little girls with this as a first name are early risers and get the plastic crap right out of their breakfast cereal box while their unfortunately-named siblings slumber on.

And because you were wondering, the way I will remember the word alondra until it crystallizes in my brain (which I think it's on the verge of doing, I just heard something go click) is that I will start with the word for swallow, (golondrina), lose the g and switch some vowels around and drop the ending.

What? you don't do word surgery? Well then I just don't know what kind of animal you are.

And then she flew away.

4 comments:

Richard said...

I once knew a guy whose stock response to "The early bird catches the worm" was always "yes, but the second mouse gets the cheese". He was also not a terribly daring fellow, understandably :)

your sister said...

This word surgery thing is TOTALLY genetic! Or environmental, or something...

What do you call the sibling who goes to sleep early?

Eileen said...

oh sister of mine, I call this sibling, meine schvester!

Richard: true that on the second mouse. So I take it you're not taking this guy on your longitudinal transect of the African continent by bus?

Margaret said...

Word surgery! Makes plenty of Frankensteinish sense to me!