Friday, February 01, 2013

Is a Bison not a Buffalo?

AHEM. Scientists are not the arbiters of language.

In North America, there is an indigenous animal usually called the buffalo, which is not related to the Asian and African buffalo. Therefore scientists insist on calling the NA buffalo "bison." Good for them.

Curiously, I hear much less complaint about how in North America people call elk "moose," and then call a completely different animal an elk which is not an elk but a deer.

Meanwhile, a killer whale is not a member of a whale family. It's a dolphin. Neither the sparrowhawk (falcon) or redtailed hawk (buteo) are hawks. The jackrabbit is a hare and the snowshoe hare is a rabbit.

Despite getting an enormous kick out of taxonomy, and the difference between Artiodactyla and Perrissodactyla, I use all these "wrong" names. By and large, the common name is a much more evocative name than the "correct" one. "Bison" is a species. A buffalo is the animal that thundered in great herds over the plains, the lifeblood of the Sioux, the animal the pale-face shot by the hundreds for sport as their trains rattled by. A buffalo is the spirit of the American west.

In the 19th century, we like to say, people thought whales were fish. Listening to Moby Dick, it occurred to me, that is completely wrong. People called whales "fish." They defined a "fish" as an animal that swims in the ocean, and by that definition, they were absolutely correct, a whale is a fish. It simply isn't true that they mistakenly believed whales to be fish. They understood that there were significant differences between whales and fish, like breathing air. But the medium of life in water made such demands upon creatures that the whale is, in many ways, more like a marlin or swordfish than it is like a buffalo (sorry, a bison). What happened was that the definition of what makes a fish changed, so that it no longer included whales.

Apparently, by the same standard we now use to exclude whales from the name of "fish," sharks are not fish either. Sharks are in a different order from fish, they are no closer relations than are whales. But I've never heard anyone protest that a shark is not a fish.

The notion of whales as distinct from fish is now so firmly fixed in the modern mind (and, yes, the distinction is a very good one), I don't call whales fish. But I no longer feel a need to wince listening to some old sea shanty about "chasing the whale-fish."

Current Projects

I've been away from here so long. Many apologies. What am I doing? A lot. Most current bits:

The Cracked Earth: (Working Title) A bit ago I tried the "share your story with your daughter chapter-by-chapter while you write it." Kept me on my toes to be sure each chapter made you want the next. This is an odd Middle-Grades story about  a handful of kids who haven't been eaten by the creatures who've eaten most of the people on Earth. The first draft is done.

A Time Traveler's Guide to Messing Up Your Life: (Firm Title) A Young Adult story about a high school girl who time travels, and tries to "adjust" history toward better outcomes. I thought it was all done, when I discovered Steven King had just published a story about time travelers trying to save Kennedy, so now I have to change the climax so it doesn't look like I copied him. I think I might have her go after J. Edgar Hoover instead, which will have the advantage of my hero having to fend off advances from the POTUS.

Inka Argus: (working title). A middle-grades story about a girl reporter in large and strange city similar to 1900. To be a mystery, which I haven't really done before, so we'll see. This is in early stages.