Word Hoard

Here's another internet wonder of which I was ignorant, and have now learnt about from a kind friend in England: I can access the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary with my Gloucestershire Libraries card! This is a most amazing thing.

Of course, I hastened to look up "guinea fowl" and found it's "a gallinaceous bird of the genus Numida." Early references include:  "1655 T.Moffett & C. Bennet Healths Improvem. x.84......certain cheqred Hens and Cocks out of New Guiny, spoted white and black like a Barbers apron; whose flesh is like to the flesh of Turkies."

And indeed, the pintade I had for dinner was turkey-like. But I can't help wondering if it's right to eat such a beautiful bird, spotted "like a barber's apron."  Did mid-seventeenth-century barbers wear spotted aprons the way chefs wear chequered trousers today? Or--now I see this is more likely--it's that a white apron becomes speckled as the hair cuttings fall on it.

On the online OED, a sidebar lists the words surrounding guinea-fowl alphabetically, almost as if it were a page in the "real" dictionary; and so I click on "guinea-cock," and go further back in time, to German writer Conrad Heresbach's husbandry guide, originally in Latin, translated in 1577 by Barnaby Goodge:  "I would fain learn the right ordring of their outlandish birds, called Ginny Cocks, and Turky Cocks...Before the yeere of our Lord 1530 they were not seene with us."

I'm not sure, as I haven't read the quotation in context--though I long to do so, as happens when you start this--what Heresbach means by wanting to "learn the right ordering" of the birds; taxonomically, perhaps? Instead, I imagine a flurry of speckled feathers and a furious cackling, and him standing helplessly in the farmyard trying to call them to order...

The intriguing-sounding Dyets Dry Dinner by H. Buttes, 1599,  says "The Ginny-cocke was first brought out of Numidia, into Italy.." Testimony to the bird's African origin, hence its genus name, Numida.

I must stop. And I promise I won't quote chunks of the OED in every post, though I might be tempted. This is meant to be about French words, after all! But it is wonderful to know I can open it at will, and read it more easily than with that wretched magnifying glass.

So would I be perfectly happy if the third edition (now in preparation) never appears in book form? No. That would be a great loss. Somewhere, if only in a library, one should be able to find all twenty or more volumes, in readable print, and with covers and spine and turnable paper pages. That is, if one can find a library; yesterday I walked down to central Lyon's huge, open place, Bellecour, and at the kiosk bought an English language newspaper, in which I read that many public libraries in Britain are to be closed.

C'est dommage.  And that's British understatement.