cormorant

The significance of this word to you will vary depending on your context and interests.

If you are a lover of Canadian literary fiction, you may think of the publisher Cormorant Books.

If you follow military aircraft, you may think first of the CH-149 Cormorant, a Canadian Forces helicopter, or you might think of a cancelled project by Lockheed Martin for a drone that was to be launched from submarines’ missile tubes. Which would be a funny reversal of direction for cormorants. I’ll explain in a moment.

If you follow ships, you may know that both the Royal Navy and the US Navy have had several named Cormorant.

If you follow Monty Python, you will surely recall this address by a headmaster (played by John Cleese) to his students in The Meaning of Life:

Now two boys have been found rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant. Now some of you may feel that the cormorant does not play an important part in the life of the school but I remind you that it was presented to us by the Corporation of the town of Sudbury to commemorate Empire Day, when we try to remember the names of all those from the Sudbury area who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British. So from now on the cormorant is strictly out of bounds. Oh… and Jenkins… apparently your mother died this morning.

If you are a Biblical scholar, you may know that it is mentioned twice in the Mosaic law of the Pentateuch (Torah) as one of the birds that one must not eat. Here’s from Leviticus 11:17 (in the King James Version):

These are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, And the vulture, and the kite after his kind; Every raven after his kind; And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

It’s also in Deuteronomy in a slight variation on the same. The Hebrew word here is shalak, which refers to its plunging. The translation to cormorant is sometimes questioned, but it’s reasonable enough.

So, oh, yes, by the way, it’s a bird that plunges. Dives, in fact. Quite deep at times. More on that in a moment.

The cormorant is also mentioned – at least in the King James Version – in Isaiah and Zephaniah, again in two similar contexts. But this cormorant is Hebrew ka’ath (“vomiter”), which is probably a pelican or perhaps something else entirely, such as a desert owl. Here’s the bit from Isaiah 34:11 (yes, I did notice the numerical relation to the Leviticus passage):

And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it; and he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness.

If you’re an ornithologist, or a common birder for that matter, a cormorant is not necessarily so portentous. It’s something you see by the sea, diving into the sea, emerging having grabbed a fish. In some places cormorants have been used for catching fish – the owner ties a snare around the base of the bird’s throat to keep it from swallowing large fish. So the bird gets the fish, comes back, and the owner pulls the fish out – prestifishitates it, as it were.

They are, indeed, birds known to have prodigious appetites. This leads to a figurative use of cormorant to refer to a greedy or rapacious person, and it’s something Warren Clements (he of The Globe and Mail) highlights in his recent book Bird Doggerel (Nestlings Press, printed by Coach House Press, available at better bookstores in the Toronto orbit), in a brief poem:

The Double-Crested Cormorant
by Warren Clements

I wish I were a cormorant.
I’d gobble all the fish I saw
And fishermen would find they can’t
Compete with me, so great’s my craw.
I’d kill the trees I nested in
And have a family so huge
We wouldn’t leave a single fin.
Après le cormorant, le déluge.

(The closing line is not a reference to the cormorant’s presence with respect to Noah, but rather a reference to a quotation attributed to Louis XV or Marie Antoinette.)

You may infer from the title of the poem that there is more than one kind of cormorant. In fact, there are quite a lot of them in its family, the Phalacrocoracidae. Some of them are called shags, evidently from their plumage. But they’re all Phalacrocorax one thing or another. They’re related to pelicans but don’t have the pouchy beaks. They actually vary in appearance quite a bit, and in size somewhat too but they’re generally not too small (the OED calls the cormorant “a large and voracious sea-bird”).

One nice thing about the word cormorant is that one doesn’t have to say phalacrocorax (a fun word, to be sure, but a nuisance even to type); another is that it is less subject to misunderstanding than shag (which also makes it less fun, though). The word doesn’t seem especially delicious or appealing to me generally, however; although it has overtones of korma (a kind of curry), Cor! More? (a British exclamation), Coruscant (a planet in the Star Wars movies), and marine corps, it also brings to mind moron and rant and ant. And although it has a smooth core made with liquids and nasals, and crisp voiceless stops sandwiching that like crackers, those two /or/ sounds have a rather lugubrious echo.

Lugubrious like Poe’s raven – and his whole poem about it, which uses that /or/ sound quite heavily for baleful and doleful effect. But, say, what is a raven? Corvus corax. Hmm… that corax… as in Phalacrocorax? Yes, the cormorant has been thought of as like a sort of sea raven (and not just because ravenous) or sea crow: corvus marinus. Which passed through some French and English mutations to become our word du jour, cormorant. I guess the rest got eaten – like half of the middle syllable when many people say it.

One response to “cormorant

  1. So from this we might deduce that Poe’s Raven was a Cormorant – a “corvus marinus”, or “sea raven”!
    To begin with, it is important to note two additional facts about the cormorant: 1) it is a shore bird rather than a sea bird; 2) it is reputed to have a nasty, pungent odor, the cause of which is still disputed. Some say it comes from its oily plumage, which enables the bird to dive deep into very cold water; others say that the feathers are not waterproof at all, but are actually water permeable, and that the odor is produced by the voracious bird’s fish diet. In any case, the cormorant does stink (and worse than the linseed oil applied by the students)!
    Now, on to Poe.
    So here’s the story: It’s “midnight dreary” in “bleak December”, when the speaker hears a tapping at his “window lattice”. A “stately raven” steps in, “tempest tossed” and “wandering from the nightly shore”. Unable to persuade the bird to leave its perch on the bust of Pallas, the speaker sinks into the velvet cushion of the chair with his “head at ease reclining”, and gradually falls into a stupor caused when “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer”. Overcome by the cormorant’s odor, the speaker raves deliriously at the smelly bird, and “shrieked upstarting – ‘Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!'” But the sly cormorant stays put, silently pondering the advantages of domestication over tempests in December, and ultimately snuggling in “above the chamber door” (heat rises), having found, at least until summer, an avian “balm in Gilead”.
    Quoth the cormorant, ‘Nevermore’.
    Bobbi Speck

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