June 09, 2006

Vocabulary Building at the Seven Lazy P

Rich and I just got back to our Montana summer fieldwork (me)-and-writing (us) base from a couple of days at the Seven Lazy P Deep Canyon Ranch, in a gorgeous never-logged and un"developed" canyon on the Rocky Mountain Front outside Choteau, Montana. From the ranch we drove up into the canyon to a trailhead from which you can wade across the North Fork of the Teton River (a bit challenging this time of year) and hike up into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. All along the 8-mile road to the trailhead we saw mule deer, mostly bucks; and, as mule deer do, they fled in hilarious pogo-stick bounds, often more or less straight up a steep mountainside. They aren't quite as charming as kangaroos hopping -- nothing could be -- but there aren't a lot of kangaroos in Montana, and watching mule deer bound is a lot of fun. At dinner that evening we reported on the unusually large number of mule deer, and on their bounding, and one of the other guests mentioned that this gait is called stodding. Never heard the word. So when I got back to my computer I googled stodding: only 18 hits, and only two of these had to do with this pogo-stick gait.

Next I tried the on-line Oxford English Dictionary (OED), looking for stod, and here I got a surprise: it didn't ask if maybe I meant something else, like maybe stud; it simply sent me directly to the stud entry. A flaw in the program, if they make assumptions about user-misspellings. I went back and tried stodding and got (appropriately, as it turned out) a "no results" report.

Back to Google, and this time I tried "mule deer" pogo stick. That worked: in various entries I found the word stotting for the bounding gait. So my fellow ranch guest had fallen into the Metal, meddle, mettle, medal, etc. trap with his spelling (I did ask him to spell it) stodding. The spelling stotting (which is of course pronounced exactly like stodding, though stot and stod are not pronounced identically) is in the OED: the verb means `rebound, bounce (from, off)...; jump, start, spring'. Numerous sources (see Google) use the verb to refer to the bounding gait of antelope, gazelles, and also mule deer. The sources describe the gait as a stiff-legged bounding with all four feet off the ground at once.

But some sources note that there's also another word for this same gait: pronk. Unlike stot, which (the OED says) is of obscure origin, the etymology of pronk is known: it's from an Afrikaans word meaning `to show off, strut, prance', and ultimately from Dutch pronken `to strut'; and it was first applied to the spectacular bounds of the little South African antelope called a springbok. I have a vague recollection of hearing pronk in an obscene sense, but either I'm remembering wrong or all the Google sources I checked were too prim to mention this one.

Anyway, now I know how to describe the mule deer's bounding with two words that are brand new to me. I think I still prefer the pogo-stick image, though.

Addendum/Correction: Ben Zimmer just told me, as we passed in a corridor in Language Log Plaza, that there is reason in the OED's rhyme, because stod is given in the stud entry as a 14th-century spelling variant of stud.

THREE MORE ADDENDA: First, a correction, thanks to Mark Etherton, a Language Log reader in the U.K.: RP and many (most? all??) speakers of British English would have a genuine phonetic [d] in stodding and a genuine phonetic [t] in stotting. So my comment about identical pronunciations of the middle consonant in the two words is valid only for most (not all) dialects of American English. Careless of me not to mention this in my post: apologies to all international readers of Language Log!

Second, Grant Hutchins reports that a science comprehension section on his ACT exam (vintage 2000 or 2001) "heavily featured" measurements of stotting by some kind of buck. He says that the word struck him as odd at the time, and that he will never forget its meaning....So clearly it's possible to build this word into one's vocabulary without ever visiting western Montana.

And third, another reader turned up obscene and scatological meanings for spronk, so that's probably why I vaguely remembered such meanings for pronk. But (as the reader discovered) googling spronking (rather than just pronk, which turns up too many proper names) shows that its current usage is mainly the same as pronking or stotting. It's certainly not as common as pronking -- only 93 Google hits, as opposed to 11,300 for pronking -- but it's still puzzling: where did that initial s- come from? Not from Dutch, as far as I can tell. (The OED has an entry for spronk, but both of its two meanings, `a shoot, sprout' and `a spark', are irrelevant, and also the word is obsolete except in certain dialects. So that's no help.) Posted by Sally Thomason at June 9, 2006 02:03 PM