We had to deal with it sooner or later, didn’t we?
After six months of nearly weekly entries about the ABA’s 2013 Bird of the Year, it’s finally time to answer the question on everyone’s lips:
I’ve never heard the name in actual use, but it’s widely attested in most of the usual sources for folk names, most of which offer only the most oblique explanations of its origin. In the Audubon Society Encyclopedia, for example, John Terres says that the name is used “in Maine … in allusion to a common call often rendered peent!”
Such careful formulation (“in allusion to…”) seems to have gone out the window more recently, and “pork and beans” is now understood as just an amusing transliteration of the bird’s call.
Beans resembles the nasal note the bird repeats emphatically during its herky-jerky insect-hunting flights.
There is even a children’s book in which the Common Nighthawk speaks the very words “pork and beans.” Amazing stuff.
No such squeamishness here.
Among the more inscrutable names assigned the Common Nighthawk over the years is the odd little “Pisk.”
Nuttall’s use of the name in his Manual of 1834 (he would replace it with the more familiar “nightjar” in the second edition of 1840) is preceded by Swainson’s in the great Fauna boreali-americana, where it is the only English name assigned this species.
Swainson’s synonymy gives us a first clue as to the origin of the name: he tells us that the “Cree Indians” call our bird “peesquaw,” obviously the source of the English “pisk.”
But what does it mean?
It isn’t often that we can turn to French structuralism for help in answering a question about birding, but in this case, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Potière jalouse is just what the doctor ordered. The Chorier translation tells us that
Algonquian words for the bird Chordeiles generally stem from the root pist-, which seems to inspire numerous puns among the Blackfoot, since their word for “fart” [I warned you] is pistit.
Lévi-Strauss then retells a story found in more than twenty versions over a vast area of central and western North America, among speakers of Algonquian and Siouan languages: The Trickster plays a mean prank on “a rock endowed with speech and movement,”
so the rock starts rolling, chasing after the Trickster, catches up with him, and traps him under his huge weight. Summoned by the cries of the victim … [the Nighthawk] manages to shatter the rock … by farting violently. The rock is reduced to little pieces … the origin of all the stones that one sees today in the world.
“Pisk” and its ancestors in Native American languages are echoic words, capturing in human speech the flatulent-sounding whirr of a booming Common Nighthawk.
Which brings us back in an obvious way to “pork and beans.” That name, called by Terres an “allusion,” is in fact a metonymy, the euphemistic substitution of a cause for its effect.
In other words, if that slightly terrifying child at the top of this post keeps shoveling it in, he’ll know exactly what a Common Nighthawk sounds like.