Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Here’s one that’s huge. I couldn’t find it in the database. There is a kind of goose called the Canada goose, named after John Canada. Lots of people call them “Canadian geese.” Documentation of the eggcorn is complicated by the fact that, of course, geese residing in Canada would properly be called Canadian….
Can you back up your claim? The Wikipedia entry doesn’t mention this origin for the name. Moreover, in German and French the bird is called “Kanadagans” and “Bernache du Canada”, respectively; both these names refer to the country and not to any surname.
Also, the scientific name is /Branta canadensis/. Until recent decades, almost all of them bred in Canada and Alaska (but there’s been some spreading southward). So “John Canada” is an urban legend.
There was a rather spirited discussion of Canada Goose on the Languagehat blog quite some time ago:
I’ve been working on a response ever since I saw k_benko’s post, but it’s now so long I’m having second thoughts about putting it up.
(Sorry about the length—we’ll see if anyone gets to the end.)
I was intrigued by k_benko’s reference to a “John Canada,” so I did the usual web checks and found three references to our man. If read in order, they form almost a mini-biography, with each citation providing just a bit more info about the eponym of the Canada Goose:
It is a common mistake to call the easily recognizable waterfowl, Branta canadensis, a Canadian Goose.
It’s important to know that the Canada Goose was actually named after John Canada, not the country Canada. Therefore, referring to the geese as “Canadian” is incorrect and might offend them. Not that there’s anything wrong with Canada.
There is no such thing, Williams says, as a Canadian goose. The species was named not for the country but for ornithologist John Canada.
http://www.alamogordonews.com/apps/pbcs … 90317/1009
Canada geese were named after someone called John Canada? You are pulling our leg, right?
[Kat Lady responded]
Nope. He was one of those that separated the North American species that we lovingly call Canadian geese.
http://www.druidry.org/board/viewtopic. … f2935d79ce
So there you have it: the Canada Goose was named after John Canada, the ornithologist and taxonomer who distinguished it from other species of geese.
That feels like cheating to me – I envision three birders with binoculars out in some marsh, and one of them says, “Hey, you guys mind if we name this one after me?” But it’s a good story.
The problem, as Jerry Friedman pointed out, is that it seems to be a story and nothing more. Googling “John Canada” and “Canada Goose” only brings up these hits. The many ornithologists who discuss the Canada Goose on their own websites can’t be bothered to spare even a single word for their esteemed forebear. I’m already fond of Mr. Canada, but – following in Jerry’s footsteps – I think his real biography looks more like this: ornithologist, taxonomer, urban legend.
How do these stories get started before they’re spread around the world by the Alamogordo Daily News? (I hasten to add that the ADN article attributes the mention of John Canada to an interviewee; the reporter himself says nothing about JC’s existence.) In this case, my wild speculation is that ole Jack Canada came into being due to how we use surnames and placenames as modifiers in English. If you’re going to name a goose after someone surnamed Canada, “Canada Goose” is your only good option; “Canadian Goose” would be silly in such a case. But if you’re going to name a goose after the great parliamentary democracy of Canada, your choices double. You can use Canada as an attributive noun, and call your bird the “Canada Goose.” Or you can use the adjectival form of Canada, and call Branta canadensis the “Canadian Goose.” There’s something elegant and streamlined about the former choice, and I think I’m glad it’s the standard name. But since the bird IS named after the country, it poses a problem for those on-line pedants who are filled with word-rage upon hearing “Canadian Goose”: there’s no immediately obvious reason why the latter name should be unacceptable. Some people on the web try to explain away the “Canadian” option as absurd because it implies the birds have citizenship or some such thing; they feel the adjective somehow anthropomorphizes geese. But that’s absurd in itself – the Mexican Parrotlet doesn’t go around carrying a passport, but it does carry a name that’s an adjectival derivative from “Mexico.” (And whenever I hear someone say “Mexico Parrotlet,” I get just furious.) Same goes for the American Crow. Or the Cuban Parakeet. Or the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo. If “Canadian Goose” were the more widely accepted name, it’d be perfectly in step with other bird names on this continent. But that won’t help the our raging pedants win any arguments. So someone invented John Canada, whose story explains why “Canadian Geese” just won’t fly.
So why IS the name “Canada Goose” and not “Canadian”? Animals often have competing common names, sometimes several different ones in different locales. “Canada Goose” and “Canadian Goose” seem to have been in competition for much of the last two centuries, but everything I can find indicates that “Canada Goose” has always been the frontrunner. A check of Google shows that “Canadian Goose” remains the plucky underbird today, with 128k hits versus 1,540k for “Canada Goose.” It’s quite reasonable, therefore, that the American Ornithological Union put its own imprimatur upon the latter name.
But in some ways, “Canada Goose” seems a tad surprising. When there’s a choice between an adjectival form of a place on the one hand, and the equivalent attributive noun on the other, the tendency seems to be that the adjective is chosen for nations, while the noun is used for smaller political divisions. For instance, consider the following data from Google searches:
“The Canada Parliament” 65 hits
“The Canadian Parliament” 294,000
“The Alberta Legislature” 54,300
“The Albertan Legislature” 7
“The California Legislature” 721,000
“The Californian Legislature” 163
The nation demands an adjective rather strongly, while the province and state demand attributive nouns equally strongly.
And the general pattern holds even when you’re not talking about groups of people:
“The Canada wilderness” 37 hits
“The Canadian wilderness” 162,000
“The Alberta wilderness” 823
“The Albertan wilderness” 9
“The California wilderness” 17,500
“The Californian wilderness” 46
For the most part, this applies to bird names, too. We have the California Condor, the Arizona Woodpecker, the Louisiana Waterthrush, the Kentucky Warbler, and the Florida Scrub-Jay. Admittedly, Hawaiian names throw things off a bit – we have the Hawaii Creeper, but also the Hawaiian Goose. These tropical birds remind us we’re talking about language and not mathematics; the “rules” don’t always hold. But we might well have expected our northern Goose to be “Canadian”—aligning it with those birds from Mexico, the US, Cuba and Jamaica.
I wonder whether the history of Canada accounts for the form of the name. According to the OED, the first citation for “Canada Goose” dates back to 1772. Perhaps the choice of “Canada” reflects the sense that at that time Canada was just one more part of the larger British Empire, and not a political entity with a strong individual identity. But that “perhaps” is intended to show I realize how speculative this line of reasoning is. I’d be interested to know whether the Hawaiian Goose got its name while Hawaii was still an independent monarchy….
All of this provides one more reason why word-rage is so silly. People who wished to stamp out an “erroneous” bird name ironically ended up putting an erroneous etymology into circulation. And, more entertainingly, they created a fictional ornithologist in the process. Things could have been otherwise. There’s an alternate universe out there somewhere in which rabid fans of Lynne Truss will scratch out your eyes for saying “Canada Goose.” And someone in that world has just invented a Dr. John Canadian.
It’s called a Canada Goose because the folks that named it called it that. It’s simple, really.
Since it is called a Canada Goose, to call it a Canadian Goose is just silly. It’s the equivalent of calling a Kodiak Bear an “Alaskan Bear”. It’s just not the name of the thing.
Within the context of debates about usage, I’ve noticed that certain recurrent words or phrases can mean almost the opposite of what they appear to mean. When a writer vehemently insists that a particular usage is “just plain wrong,” you can be absolutely sure that the issue being addressed is not at all clear-cut; people don’t develop strong emotional investments in usage topics when there aren’t legitimate arguments available on both sides. The people who claim that usage x is “just plain wrong” really want to say, “Stop arguing with me and just use the same word I do, dammit!” But that emotionally honest statement would only express a desire about the way the world should be; it wouldn’t describe the world as it is, and therefore it wouldn’t carry any argumentative heft. So the writers attempt instead to foreclose on debate by oversimplifying the nuances of the issue. The claim in the present exchange that all of this is “simple, really” fulfils a similar rhetorical function. But the question of the origins of “Canada/Canadian Goose” really is complex – for the simple fact that no one seems to know what English speaker first named Branta canadensis or what he or she named the bird.
The OED lists “Canada Goose” under “Canada”; here’s the first citation for the name:
1772 FORSTER Hudson’s Bay Birds in Phil. Trans. LXII. 414 The *Canada geese are very plentiful at Hudson’s Bay.
This does little to resolve the matter at hand, but it does have some interesting implications. Forster (I think that must be Johann Forster) doesn’t tell us who named the bird or what they named it or when. However, note that he feels no need to gloss the name; that suggests rather strongly that “Canada Goose” was already well established by 1772 – even if no earlier references survive in print. And if “Canada Goose” was in wide circulation, chances are very good that there were speakers out there saying “Canadian Goose,” too. One of the things I’ve learned from Googling pairs like “Canada/Canadian,” “California/Californian,” etc. is that where you find one, you always find the other. (For an example, see the table in my earlier post.) One of the pair usually dominates, and the respective percentages can vary hugely from phrase to phrase. That kind of variation appears to be inevitable in contemporary English – if something is named “Canadian” by someone, it’s also going to be named “Canada” by someone else – and I see no reason why the same situation wouldn’t have obtained in the 18th century. In fact, there was greater variation in usage (at least in printed materials) in the 18th century. At that time, there were fewer manuals or “authorities” around which a standard might be delineated; in 1772, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary had only been around for 17 years (and it doesn’t seem to have carried “Canada goose,” or even “Canada,” but I can’t be sure from online sources), and Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language wouldn’t appear for another 34 years. Since there weren’t any central clearinghouses to establish “Canada Goose” as the standard, it’s likely that what people called the bird actually varied more in the 18th century than it does today.
And we can’t know which form of the name came first; there’s no particularly good reason why “Canadian Goose” couldn’t have preceded “Canada Goose.” The OED editors are concerned with presenting the origins of the standard form, so they don’t mention “Canadian Goose” at all. But even a weak lexicographical tool like books.google.com can demonstrate that the two variants have been birds of a feather for a good long time. Google’s first instance of “Canada Goose” in an English-language source occurs on page 8 of Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum: Or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters (1820). And its first citation for “Canadian Goose” occurs just 4 years later on page 228 of Five Years’ Residence in the Canadas: Including a Tour Through Part of the United States [...] by Edward Allen Talbot. And from there on out, both forms exist side by side, even as “Canada Goose” clearly pulls ahead. (Full disclosure: Google returns a hit for “Canada Goose” from 1808 in a French source, but it doesn’t allow you to confirm that one.)
Do you want some authoritative sources for the use of “Canadian Goose” in the mid 19th century? In his famous History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke (1842), Meriwether Lewis refers to the “Canadian goose” on page 360. How about some evidence from a 19th century ornithologist? Page 355 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for 1843 refers to “f Anaer Canadensis, the Canadian goose.” By this time, “Canada Goose” already seems to have been the most common form of the name. Does that imply that Captain Lewis and his ornithologist contemporary were just plain wrong? I’m skeptical.
Furthermore, we can’t even be sure that “Canadian goose” or “Canada goose” didn’t drive an earlier name out of circulation. Since there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to decide the issue, anyone can impose any lexicographical fantasy they choose on the poor bird. Without advancing any evidence, Lar3ry has declared that ”[i]t’s called a Canada Goose because the folks that named it called it that.” That looks like fun. In the same carefree spirit, I’ve decided to believe that the original name was “Canadian Goose.” And since evidence is no longer an issue, let’s arbitrarily put forth other candidates for the bird’s original name: the Honker Goose, the Boreal Brant, the White-chin Goose, the Greater Hudson Goose. Who’s to say we’re wrong? Not John Canada….
But you know what? The original English name of Branta canadensis doesn’t matter much as far as current usage is concerned. A quick peek at Audubon will show that a lot of bird names in use in the mid 19th century are no longer the most common name today – but that hardly implies that the modern names are somehow wrong. The claim that we should call the bird “Canada Goose” because the first people to name it used that term is an example of the “etymological fallacy.” I’m tired of typing – and I ain’t no linguist – so I’m going to let Stanford linguist (and Eggcorns Forum member) Arnold Zwicky explain further:
In its textbook manifestation, the etymological fallacy has to do with semantics. People maintain that “decimate” can’t mean ‘almost entirely wipe out’ because it really means ‘wipe out one-tenth of’. Or that “since” and “while” can only be used as temporal connectives, not as logical ones (meaning, roughly, ‘because’ and ‘although’), because that was their original meaning. (“Original” is, of course, a moving target here.) What’s going on here is a reluctance to recognize change, and that idea can be applied to all sorts of innovations: a [t] in “often” or an [l] in “walk” (note that these things can come around in cycles); the use of past forms in counterfactual conditionals (“if I was your father”); plural subject-verb agreement with “none” (“None of the students were prepared”), because “none” is really “not one” and therefore singular; and so on.
[New paragraph.] Another manifestation of the etymological fallacy shows up in the way many ordinary people (PITS, People In The Street) think of non-standard, innovative, regional, informal, etc. usages. Many of these usages have their origins in what could broadly be labeled as “mistakes” or “errors”—via regularization, reanalysis, generalization, hypercorrection, and the like—and PITS are inclined to see them as still errors still, as (inadvertent) failures to attain the correct usage. This attitude towards variation leads to what I think of as the Repetition Annoyance Syndrome, or RAS: PITS are mightily annoyed when speakers or writers keep producing the manifestly incorrect usages, time after time. “There he goes again”, they cry out in exasperation, as “She talked with Tom and I about it” is succeeded by “That really pleased Tom and I” and so on, one nominative coordinate object pronoun after another, in what strikes many PITS who abhor this construction as a perverse indulgence in error.
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language … 01256.html
Or a perverse indulgence in silliness.
I’m gonna go make dinner now. But I’m not having goose. In fact, I’ve decided not to think about geese at all for a while. I need to think about something a lot more fun. Maybe I’ll put on a Dar Williams CD and think about Canada girls.
(Yeah, yeah, I know – the Dar Williams song “O Canada Girls” mentions geese. Can’t get away from them.)