By Bobby Neal winters
I am constantly perplexing my daughters with expressions that come out of my mouth. A frequent one is “I will have to lick my calf over.” This is because I frequently don’t get things right the first time and have to do them over.
Many people, maybe most people, will look at the phrase and be perplexed as well, but those who grew up in an agrarian society, at least one centered around cattle, are not confused at all. When a calf is born, it is covered with afterbirth--amniotic fluid to those who learned about birth by reading about it rather than seeing it--and the calf’s mother licks this afterbirth from the calf. If she doesn’t get it all, she will continue until she has, i.e. she licks her calf over.
It is a linguistic fossil. It is embedded in my speech because I heard my mother use it all the time. It is likely to disappear from use quite quickly as generations move farther and farther from that agrarian existence to find more and more of the natural world to be disgusting.
That is a shame because linguistic relics such as this are a part of our collective memory. They are around everywhere. There is, for example, Wednesday, Woden’s Day, reminding us of a time when our linguistic forebears worshipped the god Woden.
Place names also serve as cultural fossils. Fort Smith, Arkansas; Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Scott, Kansas remind us of days--not that long ago--when this part of the country was very thinly settled and those few citizens out here needed soldiers for protection from the indigenous population of the region.
Speaking of the indigenous population, we are reminded of them in other ways. The Washita River and the Ouachita Mountains are in central and eastern Oklahoma, respectively. For those who don’t know, Washita and Ouachita are pronounced exactly the same. It’s the English and the French taking the same Indian word which Wikipedia tells me means anything from “sparkling water” to “good hunting grounds” to “big buffalo.” Regardless, you put these two words together and figure out that a lot of people have been across this patch of ground and none of them could agree on much.
Then there is the tree called bois d’arc in Oklahoma and Texas and hedge in Kansas. Those of you who read French--and I only know enough of it for this example--might pronounce that bwah dark. And recognize it as meaning wood of the arc or wood of the bow. It was a tree that the indigenous peoples used in making bows. Folks in Oklahoma and Texas pronounce it bow dark, because they know this, but they don’t know French. This linguistic fossil reminds us through it’s meaning in French and it’s mispronunciation of the history of this region.
My visits to Paraguay have been a reminder of the religious spirit among those who built cities: Asuncion, Encarnación, and Concepción. These are named after feasts of the Catholic Church. Then there are the small towns of Trinidad, and Jesus which are in Misionés. This is a region of South America called Misionés that crosses the national borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. It was established by Jesuit missionaries. I have to believe they had something to do with the naming.
On another continent, in another language, there is King’s Cross Station. If you’ve read Harry Potter or have seen any of the movies, then you’ve heard of King’s Cross Station. It is a railway station named after an area of London that was named after a monument to King George IV that isn’t there anymore. So the physical monument is gone, but it was preserved in the place name and that has been further preserved in a work of literature.
This happens quite a bit I suspect. There was a truck stop called The Dog House in Ada, Oklahoma. It used to be by itself, but the area where it was is built up now. It was on the highway, but the cross street became known locally as Dog House Road. The Dog House is now gone; the official name of the street is Country Club Road; to old nesters such as myself it is still Dog House Road. It is a fossil.
My family and I went to visit the travelling King Tut exhibit that is now in Kansas City at Union Station. We discovered that after his death, his name had been removed from a statue. They know this, because while it had been removed from the front, it had been left on the back which was against the wall. This is reminiscent of the scene from the old Cecil B. DeMille movie the Ten Commandments wherein Pharaoh has Moses’ name removed from all the monuments, an attempt to make history forget him. I don’t know whether this was done to King Tut, but he did disappear from history until his tomb was rediscovered.
Let me now bring up the example of the Washington Redskins. Redskins is an offensive word and quite frankly I don’t know if it was ever not offensive, but I don’t think they applied the name to a football team in order to offend anybody. The fact is that the indigenous people of this land scared the European settlers at various times. The Europeans considered the indigenous peoples to be fierce warriors, and being a warrior people themselves (learn more of the history of England!) they considered this to be a compliment. This offensive name is a linguistic fossil of the fear the European settlers felt. If you want the proper context, remember one ancient European king used the silver-lined skull of a Byzantine Emperor as a drinking cup.
It was an honor, but sometimes folks would rather forego the honor.
What does one do with linguistic fossils? I suppose we should with them what we do with the more usual sort of fossil. Preserve them in some way, be mindful of them, study them and try to understand them, as we try to understand ourselves.