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Word Tasting Note: "Geoduck"

We're happy to feature another installment of James Harbeck's Word Tasting Notes, this time on the word geoduck.

This word, at first sight, seems to be a paradoxical mix: geo says "earth" to us, and duck says "waterfowl." Put them together and you have something that is, as the saying goes, neither fish nor fowl.

But, oh, that's not even the half of it. This word and what it denotes have nothing to do with ducks, and only arguably something to do with earth. Not only that, it's not pronounced like it's spelled. OK, well, it often is pronounced like it's spelled, but that's not the original pronunciation and is still not the preferred pronunciation for those in the know. But let's get to that anon. There's lots of other weirdness to get through first.

Let's establish that it's a critter of some sort. Given that, what kind of critter would have about as little as you can think to do with ducks or with earth? Hmm, how about some kind of a marine critter. Let's say it's one that basically sits where it is and sucks in and spits out water its whole life, which can last well over 100 years. And let's give it a shell. OK, yeah, let's make it a clam.

But tell me about clams, now: what are they? Well, things that have their body inside a shell – they can close the shell and hide in it. And they're usually pretty small. Well, now, let's make this one up to 5 kilograms, and let's make it so its shell can't actually close over its body. In fact, let's also give it a long tail – OK, a siphon – that can get up to 70 centimetres long. This is a clam that is around the size of a turkey. And it looks rather phallic, too, thanks to that long siphon. (The Chinese name, 象拔蚌 xiàngbábàng, means "elephant-trunk clam.")

Now, admittedly, it does have something to do with earth – the earth that is under water. It's a burrowing clam. It digs in and sucks and blows water. Aaaaaaaand that's about it. You think your life is boring. Well, meet zen master clam. I am sure that it is as happy as a clam. A very big clam. The biggest burrowing clam in the world, and one of the longest-lived critters on the planet, too.

They get to live to such a ripe old age in part because they have few natural predators. Not none, mind you. The most dangerous one is willing to pay more than $150 a pound for these things (imagine dropping $1600 on a turkey). So they're a protected species. But they can be eaten, and in fact Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that geoduck meat is delicious. The siphon meat is best used in chowder (diced, I presume), and the body (the mantle) can be sliced into escalopes and prepared a variety of ways. You won't be suckin' 'em back like raw oysters, though.

And is the word geoduck delicious? Well, first you have to know how it tastes. It may look like the name of some environmentalist avian comic superhero ("Step away from those protected clams!" "Gaaahhh! It's Geoduck!"), but it's actually kind of gooey. "Gooey duck," to be precise: that's how you would do better to say it. That makes it less crisp, more round and dull and perhaps muddy. Um, yeah, so what's with the spelling?

Well, as far as can be determined, the word comes from a west-coast first nations word, perhaps the Salsih word gʷídəq, "dig deep." It is also seen spelled as gweduc in English. But back in the 1800s the spelling goeduck gained some currency... but then got miscopied as geoduck: goe looks odd to English eyes, while geo is well known. The respelling has also led to people who don't know better pronouncing it as the spelling would suggest; indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary gives only that pronunciation for it. (But they don't have geoducks in England, and the OED entry is rather brief.) And so we have a word that looks like it means one kind of thing and is said one way, when actually it means something quite different and is pronounced in a rather unexpected way. Weird enough for you? Welcome to the English language.

What would be a capper for all that? Well, a couple possibles come to mind. One would be a fake etymology. And indeed there is one noted by Davidson, which he found in a 1917 edition of the Tacoma Daily Ledger, involving some dude named John F. Gowey who was out hunting for ducks and shot at the jets of water emitted by the clams (yes, those long spouts do squirt) and bagged several, leading to their being called "Gowey's ducks." (Anyone who has studied much etymology would snort with instant disbelief at a story like that; they abound, and are almost never true.)

Another would be a collegiate athletic team named after them. Never mind Spartans and Trojans. Make way for the Evergreen State College Geoducks! Yes, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (yes, Olympia, the original of which is in Greece), have named their basketball, volleyball, soccer, track and field, and cross-country teams theGeoducks. Well, why not name an athletic team after something that just sits and sucks and spits water? If a Chevy truck ad can feature a song that has the line "like a rock, charging from the gate," why not geoducks, which are at least theoretically motile? (At least they won't run into the problem of the Corner Canyon school in Draper, Utah, whose school board ruled they couldn't call their team the Cougars because it might be offensive to middle-aged women. No, I'm not making that up.)

I feel that this odd and paradoxical word and its sui generis referent are best capped off with the fight song for the Evergreen State College Geoducks, in case it all hasn't been fun enough (I also encourage you to see their mascot on their website):

The Geoduck Fight Song
words and music by Malcolm Stilson, 1971

Go, Geoducks go,
Through the mud and the sand, let's go.
Siphon high, squirt it out,
swivel all about,
let it all hang out.

Go, Geoducks go,
Stretch your necks when the tide is low
Siphon high, squirt it out,
swivel all about,
let it all hang out.

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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 26th 2012, 12:07 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Wow ... What if I had not read this article, and had lived the rest of my life not knowing about "gooey ducks"?! What a chilling thought!

Geoducks are fascinating! I would have said they are amazing, but that word has been commandeered by popular culture and now means "good" or "really really good" and indicates "something or someone I like a lot." I want the old meaning of "amazing": very surprising, astounding, astonishing, I never would have believed it, who knew? Are you serious??

You must go to YouTube and look for "Geo Duck Song" or "Geo Duck Fight song" (try it with "geoduck", too - one word). There are actually at least two Geoduck songs! And a video of the mascot, sort of dancing. Of course I could give you the links, but we all know that the journey is more important than the destination, and the hunt for the best videos on YouTube, just like the hunt for live geoducks in the ocean, is an adventure you don't want to miss. Enjoy!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday January 26th 2012, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
A charming documentary about geoducks was shown on the festival circuit a few years ago: "3 Feet Under: Digging Deep for the Geoduck." Nice title, and I love the website's URL: http://www.duckumentary.com
Thursday January 26th 2012, 5:40 PM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
I am now the go to guy at the office regarding all things geoduck.

Googling geoduck revealed another plausible etymology involving an Indian word for dig deep. I clearly might have been sucked into that had I not read this article. Thanks.
Saturday January 28th 2012, 10:05 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
The Website provided a nice picture! Ms. Nancy's URL is funny too.
Thanks for choosing to write down about a small creature with wonderful surviving skills.
Wonder!Wonder!and Wonder everywhere even at deep level of underneath ocean water surface! From Biology books we came to know about several surviving nature and skill of these class of mollusks, but connecting dots for making word meaning for adaptability is a praise worthy effort.
Wednesday February 1st 2012, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
If laughter is truly the best medicine, I've been cured of everything!
Wednesday February 1st 2012, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
If laughter is truly the best medicine, I've been cured of everything!

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