Marching to a different drum: Henry David Thoreau’s language in nature
Henry David Thoreau, born on July 12, 1817, was a renowned nature writer and philosopher, famed for his two year excursion to Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau, like his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a Transcendental philosopher – a kind of American spin on Romanticism that places an emphasis on nature and spiritualism – and his great experiment, recorded in the work Walden, was one of simple living, self-sufficiency, and solitude. Thoreau lived off the land in a self-made cabin, and made detailed written descriptions of the world around him and of his experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that the adjective ‘Thoreauvian’ tends to be reserved for similar returns to nature, rejections of materialism, or for practical philosophical efforts to live a good and simple life.
Thoreau’s writings have gained hundreds of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, and though he might not have come up with as many words as others, the words for which he gives examples provide a picture of his attentive approach to the natural world. There are a good deal of unusual animal names and descriptors used in the book, from ‘flicker’, a word for several varieties of North American woodpeckers, to ‘chickadee’ or ‘chicadee’ (Thoreau uses both) – not used as a term of endearment as we might know it today, but as a popular term for the Black-cap titmouse. We find a multitude of ‘cat-owls’ and ‘muskrats’, as well as more colloquial references to fauna (‘fishworms’, the best kind of worm to use for bait). We also find in the dictionary his descriptions of plant life, from ‘thimble-berries’ to ‘potamogetons’ (a type of aquatic plant), to ‘pinweed’ and ‘pipewort’ and ‘wool-grass’. These are not words Thoreau coined, but their appearances in the dictionary attests to Thoreau’s highly trained eye and his wealth of knowledge about the world around him.
Suitably, for a work named after a pond, Walden is also cited as example for the word ‘pondside’ – the manner in which Thoreau lived for those two years. He also describes, rather wonderfully, the ‘ciderish taste’ of the wild fruits he tasted in the woods. And, after gazing long at the open night sky, he offers an early example of the term ‘Milky Way’ as used to describe our galaxy – as distinct from its much older and more general use, to describe ‘the irregular, faintly luminous band that circles the night sky’. It is also interesting that he provides examples for uncommon nouns including ‘hounding’, the practice of pursuing an animal with a dog or dogs, ‘graping’, the gathering of grapes from the wild, and ‘barberrying’, gathering barberries.
The extensive and specific words he uses to describe activities in and amongst nature attest to his philosophy of self-sufficiency – that he not only observed and made note of flora and fauna, but he was an active an engaged participant in the ecosystem of Walden Pond. Thoreau practised farming, fishing, and foraging during his years by the pond, as well as making his own bread. It is also fitting that he is quoted as example for the verb ‘squat’ as well as the phrase ‘squatter’s rights’ – squatting, as the occupation without legal rights of unclaimed land, was a developing concept in the early nineteenth century, especially after the California gold-rushes brought many opportunistic land-grabbers to the state.
Amongst Thoreau’s more original contributions to the dictionary is the pleasingly colloquial ‘mosquitoey’, in a description of the shores of the lake: ‘The bank would often be too steep, or else too low and grassy, and therefore mosquitoey’. The word is a reminder that Thoreau doesn’t entirely idealize nature – there are plenty of things he doesn’t like about Walden – and it is also a good example of the rhythms of his prose (up until the word ‘grassy’, the sentence has the strong rhythm of a poem). On the subjects of Thoreau’s words, it is irresistible to mention that he has made his own occasional stab at etymology – though his poetic spirit often carries him away from the true meaning of words. In his lecture Walking, he offers this superb – but almost certainly false – background for the verb ‘saunter’:
‘sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under the pretence of going à la Sainte Terre”, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer”, a Saunterer – a Holy Lander.’
Thoreau’s anecdote is more of a bilingual pun than an instance of etymology, as he hears in the French words for ‘Holy Ground’ a description of wandering. This is a charming but fanciful account of the word ‘saunter’, which is, in truth, a difficult one to trace; the OED notes that it is ‘of obscure origin’, and that the word’s multiple usages – to walk, but also to muse or dream – do not appear to be related to one another. There is, at any rate, no evidence to support Thoreau’s history of the word.
Later in the same essay, Thoreau offers a definition of ‘village’ based around the notion that ‘the village is the place to which the roads tend’. He states that ‘village’ stems from the Latin ‘villa’, which in turn contains Latin roots ‘via’ (a way or road) and ‘veho’ (to carry). He also notes the apparent link between ‘village’ and ‘vileness’, in the Latin root ‘vilis’, as well as the word ‘villain’ meaning ruffian or scoundrel. Thoreau is a little off with his etymological association between road and village, but he is actually quite accurate when he links villainy to villagers. ‘Villain’ was, essentially, a medieval term for a low-born, rustic person, and for the peasant class; that it came to be used to mean ‘scoundrel’, and to signify immorality, suggests a classist or snobby sentiment – ‘villain’ was a word used by the ruling classes to describe the poor.
Thoreau’s rather creative approach to etymology allows him to try to reappropriate those sentiments, to suggest that walking, and journeying through nature, might be more morally correct than stationary living in villages or towns. In doing this, he is, of course, taking liberties with language. But what Thoreau does with words is more than an effort to name things precisely. As in Walden, he uses language to draw connections, link objects and ideas, and make moral and ethical sense of the world around him. His imaginative approach to language and the natural world is what has made him memorable as an early environmentalist thinker. And though Thoreau was a patient observer of the natural world, and took a scientific approach to the things he experienced, he was also a deeply spiritual writer and thinker – the natural world was a doorway to the supernatural world, and words, for Thoreau, were a way of moving beyond the surface of things, into a deeper understanding of the universe.
His originality is perhaps best expressed through a popular phrase which arises out of an expression found in his writings: ‘to march to a different drummer.’ As Thoreau writes: ‘if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away’.