There are certain beasts and creatures for which the names we use are inaccurate and misleading. A seahorse is not a horse, nor is a jellyfish a fish. Doubly erroneous is the guinea pig, which does not come from Guinea and is not a pig. It is all very perplexing, never more so than in the case of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake. Let us take each element of its appellation in turn, and examine just how foolish it is of us to name it so.
Rare. This is not, by a long stretch, a rare beast. There are teeming millions of them, if not billions, though naturalists have yet to arrive at a definitive number. To list their habitats would take us all day, and probably into tomorrow. Suffice to say there is nowhere on earth they will not thrive, from grasslands, heaths, and moors to densely forested woodland, polar wasteland, steaming jungles, and urban hellholes. You will find them both near and far from any sea. I realise I have begun to list their habitats, and will stop now, bearing in mind what I just said about how bloody long it would take. The point is made, that the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is not at all rare. You might protest that you have never seen one, or at least cannot recall ever seeing one, but that is because they are shy and retiring and extremely skilled at hiding from humankind. Even if you did see one, there is every likelihood you would not recognise it for what it was, as you would be on the lookout for something rare and golden and enigmatic and tatterdemalion and corncrakey, and as I shall demonstrate, it is none of these things.
Golden. Pish! There is no way this creature can be described as “golden”. Red, maybe, or blue, perhaps even orangey-yellowy, but never golden. At blaze of noon, perhaps, you might think it golden, or goldenish, but what you would be seeing is the mighty burning golden rays of the sunlight, not the actual colour of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake.
Enigmatic. What does that even mean? Let us turn, as always, to the OED, which defines “enigmatic” as Pertaining to, or of the nature of, an enigma, containing or resembling an enigma: ambiguous, obscure, perplexing. Of persons: Mysterious; baffling conjecture as to character, sentiments, identity, or history. An enigma itself, we are told, is A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, in order to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer in guessing what is meant; a riddle. How far does that get us, in considering the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake? If we extend “Of persons” to “Of persons and beasts and creatures and all the birds of the air”, which I think we are justified in doing at this stage of our investigation, then I would aver that the most enigmatic thing about the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is that we apply the word “enigmatic” to it. That in itself is perplexing and mysterious and baffling, is it not? But if we continue down that road we are going to become horribly entangled in a hall of mirrors. Oops, I am mixing my metaphors. Let me say instead that we are going to become horribly entangled in a thicket of nettles which has unaccountably sprouted in a patch of soil within a hall of mirrors. For that image, I can rely on historical precedent, as it is said that Prince Fulgencio, that black-hearted monster, had such a thicket of nettles within the hall of mirrors within his palace. But that is a topic for another time, tomorrow perhaps. For now, I do not wish to become disorientated in the hall of mirrors suggested by the idea that the only thing remotely enigmatic about the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is that the word “enigmatic” appears in its name. See, I am already repeating myself, dizzy-brained, my mind in chaos. We had best move on to the next word in the chain.
Tatterdemalion. A person in tattered clothing; a ragged or beggarly fellow; a ragamuffin – the OED again. How indispensable it is! And again we must extend “person” to include beasts and creatures and all the birds of the air. Even minimal familiarity with the pernickety grooming habits of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake shows us that this is a wildly inaccurate description of the beast. Several tiptop naturalists have written at length on its neat and tidy appearance, achieved through hour upon hour of pernickety grooming. Given the vicissitudes of the natural world, however, it is only to be expected that there will be circumstances every now and then when even the neatest and tidiest of creatures will appear ragged and tattered and bedraggled. In the case of the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake, these might include exposure to gale-force winds, dunking in storm-tossed oceans, and being caught and dragged, by one of its many, many predators, through a thicket of nettles on its way to the predator’s lair or nest. At all other times the word “tatterdemalion” is completely inappropriate.
Corncrake. The rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake bears about as much resemblance to a standard corncrake as a seahorse does to a standard horse, a jellyfish to a standard fish, or a guinea pig to a standard pig. We can try to make more sense of this part of its name if we split the word into two, corn and crake. While it is emphatically the case that the creature is to be found in rippling cornfields, we have already stated that there is nowhere on earth it is not found. Thus it is just as likely to be hiding in a field of rippling corn as it is in a field of other rippling crops, or on moorland or heath, or anywhere else you might possibly think of. The question of how it hides itself on open land such as moor and heath is so complicated that I cannot bear the thought of trying to explain it to you in language you would understand. As for the crake, that is merely an approximation of the kind of noise it might make, were you to overhear it and try to write down in letters of the alphabet what you thought you had heard. But please, on no account should you pay any attention to the fathead who claims that “crake” is the noise it makes if you cause it alarm and it flees in fear and terror. On the contrary, it will softly and suddenly vanish away – for the rare golden enigmatic tatterdemalion corncrake is a Boojum, you see.
If I ever decide to take responsibility for the well-being of a Guinea Pig I shall name it ‘Erroneous’.
I suspect I’ll have to pay more than a guinea for it.