rare

I must say I like to have the odd duck. It can be quite nice. Uncommonly among birds, it can even be cooked rare.

I also like to be the odd duck. And to know the odd duck. An unusual person. A rara avis: a rare bird. Not necessarily sui generis – one of a kind – but infrequently seen. A paragon, not an epigone; perhaps also a paradox, an enigma. An enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in bacon and glazed with an orange brandy sauce, and not overdone. Raring to go.

You can cook duck breast rare because ducks are tougher birds (have you ever tried to joint one?), less susceptible to infection; the meat is also better suited to it at least in part because it is better suited to flying. It can make it up to where the air is rarefied, and perhaps by consequence it can manage to be served rare. Indeed, if it is not rare I would rather say it is not well done. As it were.

Rare duck breast is not rare because it is hard to find but rather because it is like a soft-cooked egg. From Old English hrere, probably originally having a ‘shaken, agitated’ sense, we got a word rear that retained its old-style pronunciation, as bear has. It referred to the condition of a slightly undercooked egg. The sense transferred to meat by the 1700s, by which time it had been respelled rare.

A similar change took place later in the US (from the same people who gave us varmint from vermin and grits from groats): the verb rear, as in go up on the hind legs, became rare and is usually seen in raring, especially raring to go. To me it gives an image of a dragster peeling out from the start, the nose lifting up a little, because of the sound of it: “Rare. Rare! Rare rare rare rare rare!” This works better in North America, of course; the British pronunciation, as given by Oxford, is /rɛː/, which has lower air pressure.

But our rare for ‘uncommon’ is our rare for ‘sparse’. Rare soil is soil loosely packed; rare earths are minerals and elements that are sparsely distributed through the soil (specifically they are the lanthanide series of elements). Neither rare soil nor rare earth elements are actually all that uncommon; they are just not highly concentrated. Rare air is not uncommon, either; there’s quite a lot of it surrounding the whole planet – you just have to get up to a loftier level, high peaks and flight paths.

These rares come from the original Latin sense of rara (also rarus and rarum and so on depending on inflection): ‘loose, spaced, porous, sparse, few and far between, uncommon’… It all goes together. But with room between.

So, too, do my friends the rarae aves, the rare birds and odd ducks. They can be found in the loftier levels, sometimes up in the clouds and wanting in concentration, perhaps prone to ducking out of crowded occasions, but – like rare earth magnets – capable of exerting a powerful attraction, one that pulls over a long distance. They will not get or give a lot of rah-rah-rah, but they are always worth the effort to have for dinner – or drinks, or smart conversation, that rare art.

2 responses to “rare

  1. Delicious, as usual!

  2. I read this shortly after reading an article that referred to the US president as a “lame duck.” I like to think of him as a rare bird and an odd duck, but lame? Not so much.

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