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. Unducklike and un-earthy enough for you?

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 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, then sits 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 Salish 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 the Geoducks. 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
hear it on YouTube

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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One response to “geoduck

  1. Clams do seem to attract strange names. There is also the quahog of the Atlantic coast of North America, a much smaller creature but equally edible. Its name is said to come from the Narragansett word poquauhock.

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