December 04, 2003

Beaver vocabulary from another culture

As Bill Poser's fascinating post on Carrier beaver words reminded me, both Bill and I are alumni of an institution whose totem has been the beaver ever since 1914. In that year, "Lester D. Gardner 1898 presented the idea to MIT president Richard C. Maclaurin at the annual dinner of the Technology Club of New York." The official reconstruction of Gardner's argument runs like this:

"We first thought of the kangaroo, which, like Tech, goes forward by leaps and bounds. Then we considered the elephant. He is wise, patient, strong, hard working, and like all those who graduate from Tech, has a good tough hide. But neither of these were American animals. We turned to [William Temple] Hornaday's book on the animals of North America and instantly chose the beaver. The beaver not only typifies the Tech [student], but his habits are peculiarly our own. The beaver is noted for his engineering, mechanical skills, and industry. His habits are nocturnal. He does his best work in the dark."

Not surprisingly, MIT students and staff have developed an extensive beaver-related lexicon over the intervening 89 years, just as fascinating in its own way as the Carrier beaver vocabulary. On Bill's account, the Carrier beaver words mostly refer to actual beavers or to aspects of their life and death. By contrast, nearly all the MIT beaver terms appears to refer to symbols or rites of various cultic groups, which are known to be thick on the ground at that estimable institution.

A few examples are given below, as they would be pronounced in the archaic Building 20 dialect, using the pronlex phonemic transcription conventions. (I'll try to add a field for IPA transcriptions as soon as I have time to figure out how to get Unicode effectively past the cross-product of MovableType with the usual range of browsers, operating systems and font inventories...)


ceremonial beaver-shaped ornament of initiates


ritual chant of female athletes (see below)


persona of ritual beaver costume


traditional call and response ceremony


system for determining ritual "death"


ceremonial foot races


ritual gift to newborn children of faculty


traditional contest with rival claimants of beaver totem

If you don't come from the place where Mass Ave crosses the Charles river, you probably don't know any of this stuff. Heck, even if you do, you probably don't. And you may not have time to click on all the links above. So I'll close with the informative and inspiring ritual chant of the MIT Women's Track and Field and Cross Country squad:

The MIT Beaver Call

I'm a beaver. You're a beaver. We are beavers all.
And when we get together, we do the beaver call!

E to the u du dx,
E to the x, dx.
Cosine, secant, tangent, sine,
3 point 1 4 1 5 9.
Integral, radical, mu, dv
Slipstick, sliderule, MIT!

Go Tech!

[Update: Language Hat and some of his commentators add information about the academic beaver cultures of the West Coast. Their discussion ranges further afield, extending for instance to the pronunciation of "geoduck" (whose derivation from Chinook Jargon is not mentioned) and the sexual practices of slugs, a topic whose ethnography and lexicography no doubt offer many interesting features.

I should also point out that one Philadelphia-area academic institution is not proud of its castorian heritage. As of July 16, 2001, Beaver College became Arcadia University.

And taking my inspiration from David Beaver's Third Maxim of Blog ('Digress.'), I will point out that according to the OED, the word "beaver" itself derives from "OAryan *bhebhrú-s, reduplicated deriv. of bhru- brown", and has given rise to many combined forms in the general vocabulary, including

6. Comb., chiefly attrib., as beaver-fur, -intellect, -kind, -pond, -skin, -wool(= fur); beaver-like adj. Also beaver-board, a trade-mark (U.S.) for a kind of wood-fibre building board; beaver cloth (cf. sense 4); beaver-dam, a dam made by beavers; beaver-eater (see quot. 1771); beaver finish, a finish giving a resemblance to beaver fur; hence, a finish in which the fibres are all laid in one direction; so beaver-finished adj.; beaver lamb, lambskin cut and dyed to resemble beaver fur; also attrib.; beaver-poison U.S., the water-hemlock, Cicuta sp.; beaver-rat, the musquash or MUSKRAT; beaver-root N. Amer., a pond-lily, Nymphoea odorata; beaver-stones, the two small sacs in the groin of the beaver, from which the substance 'castor' is obtained; beaver-tail, the tail of a beaver; also transf.; beaver-tree, Magnolia virginiana, the sweet or white bay of the U.S.; beaver-wood, (a) the hackberry tree of the U.S., Celtis occidentalis; (b) the beaver-tree; the wood of this tree.

while David Beaver has written that his own name "is supposedly a case of very poor translation by English officials helping my ancestors anglicize their Polish family name, 'Kaczka', which means 'duck' ". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 4, 2003 12:00 PM