I mostly relate to places through two things: food, and language. (Presumably it would be better to be relating to people, rather than to places, but in the absence of a shared language, relating to people is difficult.) Both of those–food, and language–get you pretty quickly into odd and difficult-to-resolve questions of what one might call “authenticity:” people never want to teach you slang, but it’s the thing that interests the typical linguist-on-the-road the most; we’re all always looking for that “real” svíčková na smetaně in Prague, but looking for “real” anything these days gets you into either fun conversations about cultural appropriation or fun conversations about post-modernity, both of which are fairly instant buzz-killers for anyone other than, say, me and the two other people in the universe who enjoy talking about cultural appropriation from the perspective of post-modernism without having slept very much the night before. (Obviously, I’m not a very fun date–this may be related to my shitty divorce record.)
I think I cracked the “authenticity” nut on a recent evening in Hangzhou, though, where I had the funnest experience I’ve ever had in China that didn’t involve me, my niece and nephew, and Morning Dance Party. (As far as I know, no videos of Morning Dance Party exist, and we should all be thankful for that.) A colleague took me out for dinner to a buffet at a place that he described as typical and reasonably priced–the kind of place that any family could afford to go to. Indeed, it was packed with families–imagine a very loud room filled with long tables, those long tables filled with big families talking, laughing, and passing an ever-growing assortment of plates back and forth while various and sundry foods hiss over a grill built into the table.
The way that the restaurant works: you wander around and pick things from an enormous selection, then take them back to your table, where you grill them. When I say “enormous,” bear in mind that I’m talking about China here–“enormous” in China is really big. Then think about this: I only recognized perhaps 10% of the available foods. Some fruits; some vegetables; duck gizzards, certainly, and I guessed the avian liver correctly, too. But, for the most part, I hadn’t the faintest clue what I was looking at.
Zipf’s Law describes an important characteristic of language: about 50% of the words in any large sample of words almost never occur–but, they do occur. The word that came up in the Chinese restaurant: trepang. As a verb, Wikipedia defines it like this:
Trepanging is the act of collection or harvesting of sea cucumbers…
“Not to be confused with trepanning,” it adds. Indeed, indeed.
Zipf’s Law takes you into some pretty out-of-the-way corners of the lexicon. As Wikipedia points out, to trepang is a member of a larger group of English verbs. A trepang is a sea cucumber–a marine invertebrate animal related to starfish and crinoids. To trepang is to harvest sea cucumbers, and in having that relation between the noun and the verb meaning to harvest things that are labelled by that noun, it resembles a number of more-familiar verbs. From Wikipedia again:
Other than the pure joy of having a verb that means “to collect or harvest sea cucumbers,” what’s interesting about this? In science, “interesting” usually means “different from what you would expect based on what you already know.” The interesting thing here, then, is that there are other verbs that come from a noun that refers to an animal–but, they don’t mean “acquisition of.” Consider, for example, the verb to flea. Don’t look for it in Merriam-Webster—it’s not there. What it means is to remove fleas from. It’s a transitive verb–here’s an example from a forum on pets:
The poster has a cat, the cat has fleas, and the poster would like to cause the cat to no longer have fleas, but is concerned about the fact that the cat has recently had kittens. Thus: Can I flea my cat a week after she’s had kittens?
To foal is another verb that comes from a noun that refers to an animal. A foal is a young horse, and to foal is to give birth to a foal. It can be transitive or intransitive:
- I would say she will foal in less than a week. (Intransitive. Source: enTenTen corpus, from Sketch Engine.)
- Animal science students have been involved with the entire process of preparing the horses to foal and bringing them to campus. (Intransitive. Source: enTenTen corpus, from Sketch Engine.)
- Ada had just been up four hours helping to foal a horse and wasn’t prepared for the intrusion of the outside world. (Transitive. Source: enTenTen corpus, from Sketch Engine.)
To lamb is a similar verb–Merriam-Webster gives the example The ewes will lamb soon.
Getting into conversations like this over dinner is probably why I get divorced a lot, so I’ll point you to this YouTube video, One way to flea a cat, and get on with my day–I need to run a bunch of experiments on how to split up words in sentences in biomedical journal articles…