Monday, November 24, 2008

The great kaka debate

Bill Trankle of Indianapolis sent in a trenchant question and asked me to forward it to John Blakeman :

Marie, not to belabor the point, but could you ask John why on earth hawk and falcon aficionados have come up with their own lexicon for defecation? Is there some point to calling a hawk poop a slice (beyond euphemistic reasons) and a falcon's a mute? Or did they just have a lot of time on their hands?!

I forwarded the question to Blakeman. Here is his response:

Well, a lot of time was on a number of falconers' hands -- starting about the time English as we've come to understand it began to coalesce in Great Britain. That's probably somewhere in the 14th or 15th centuries. Each culture with a long falconry tradition has an expansive glossary of unique and descriptive falconry terms, whether it be Chinese, Arabic, Indian, French, German, or English. The terms have persisted because they have been found to be useful, not just curious.
What, then, might be the usefulness of a verbal distinction between a falcon's muting and a hawk's slicing? A great deal, particularly if you've ever had to try to care for either species.
For example, my dear wife prohibits my bringing Savanna, my big Red-tail into any part of the house except the basement. And even there, I must be rather circumspect in the bird's visits. That's because, as my wife so diligently (and quickly) learned, lo those many years ago, that Red-tails slice -- decidedly. When Savanna lifts her tail, anything behind her can quickly be spattered with a long strand of slicings. Not really something you or a spouse would want in a study, living room, or reading room. Sarah knows the jargon. I'm not allowed to bring Savanna into the house where she could project her slicings on to otherwise clean surfaces.
However, if I flew a peregrine, I might be able to persuade my wife to allow me, from time to time, to bring my beloved falcon into my study, where I'd perch the falcon on my left fist, resting on an armchair. I'd read a book, listen to some J.S. Bach, or otherwise occupy myself. The bird, exposed to this domestic tranquility, would become ever more manned (the falconry term for calm taming). This could be accommodated because falcons mute. They drop their mutes directly beneath them, so a newspaper strategically placed can prevent wifely objections (pretty much, perhaps).
In fact, for many centuries, it was common for falconers to take their falcons to church with them, whether little merlins, or big peregrine falcons. Congregants sitting nearby were in no danger, as falcons cannot project their mutes. Falconers with goshawks, however, were surely not welcome with their birds in the church or cathedral. Goshawks slice, rather profoundly, so few goshawks ever got to hear a Sunday morning homily or sermon. Falcons heard a lot of these in former times.
In the modern world, an understanding of the defecatory practices of each species of hawk is required for those beginning the sport. I have a new apprentice falconer who just acquired his first bird last week, a very nice immature tiercel (another of those arcane falconry terms, a male) Red-tail. In constructing the new bird's housing, the mews -- yet another falconry term, the perches have to accommodate the hawk's slicings. Were it a falcon, the perches in the mews would be arranged very differently, for a bird that only mutes.
So, as contrived or curious as these terms might seem to the non-falconer, I can assure you we don't bandy these about to impress anyone. They are, in practice, very useful, I can assure you.
Enough of those slicings.
By the way, some might recall a reference at Buckingham Palace to the "Royal Mews," which, today, houses the royal carriages. But in former days, not only were royal carriages housed there, but also the royal hawks and falcons. The Windsors do not engage in any realistic way in falconry. Their royal predecessors did, and the birds were often kept in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. The name, wonderfully, has been retained., connecting the Royals to the English or Scottish countryside, by way of the falcons once used there for royal hunts.
--John Blakeman