Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crawfish and the Public

The word "crawfish" is based on something called folk etymology.  Any time that people incorporate an unfamiliar word into their lexicon, the word will almost always change in ways that make more sense to the listener, but which make no sense relative to the original word.  So, for example, I grew up with catty-corner (others know is as kitty corner); the original was cater-corner (cater/quatre being the 'fourth' corner of the polygon). 

Image from link
Happens all the time. It is an attempt to make sense out of a word that is taken out of its original context, and pressed into the service of a foreign tongue.

Some other fun examples are cockroach (cucaracha), charterhouse (from chartreuse) and my favorite, caterpillar (started life as Old French chatepelose "hairy cat," which is a wooly bar caterpillar).

So the example my linguistics prof gave us was crayfish.  I had grown up with crawdads or crayfish or crawfish.  Turns out that the original Old French word was crevise, pronounced (cray-vis). (In Modern French it is ecrevisse.) The word essentially means 'critter in a hole'!  But because that doesn't really fit in English, the FISH got added on because it made more sense, and the cray turned to craw because of the 'crawl'.

Perfectly logical.  Makes sense to do it that way. 
Image stolen from link

And it turns out that etymology is not the only place in my life where people try to make sense out of something confusing, and come up with a better story.

This week my project was involved in a public meeting, where we were exposed to some interesting rumors about what we were doing. 

What we are doing is building levees. 

The basic idea of a levee is pretty simple.  Pile up dirt, lots of dirt, stack it up even in the water, and eventually the dirt no longer sinks out of sight.  Stack it up in slanted walls, and the water - either from a river flood event or from a hurricane threat - stays outside of the dirt walls. 

Although that is a vast oversimplification, the principle is pretty close to the reality.  The one thing that you need to make it happen, though, is dirt.  Lots of dirt.  And the lots of dirt needs to be clay (sand lets water through, which is bad for keeping people on the inside of the wall dry). 

Another odd piece of information - clay does not travel well.  Well, that is not entirely true.  It travels fine, as long as it is not too far.  But it is expensive to take millions of cubic yards of claydirt from long distances.

So my project has looked for sites that are close enough to the levee to drive the costs down.  And far enough from the levee (and other things like roads and buildings) to make sure that the open water - left when we remove LOTS of dirt - doesn't make the levee sink. 
Levee on a site where I (unsuccessfully) worked last year - Larose to Golden Meadow.

 Now I finally get to the point.  We didn't explain well to the public what we were doing.  And what the people who lived there saw was that there was no obvious differences between the places where we dug out clay and the places where we didn't.  And so where there was no pattern, they created one.

Apparently, according to the folk etymology, we are building a marina.

It makes sense.  All we have to do is connect these separate borrow pits, cut a channel to the river (with a gate to close it off) and create slips for the boats, and we have a marina.

Only problem is, that was not what we were doing.  We were trying to economize.  Nothing more.  Our selection of borrow sites has nothing to do with a scheme to soak one group of people (intended pun) or to make another group wealthy.  It has everything to do with a) where is the closest available pit?, and b) does it have clay?

But the story, like the word crevisse, doesn't stay that way.  It turns into something else, because there is no context for understanding it that way.

And our public, who have not been there for the small incremental decisions along the way, assume something more sinister of us than is actually the case. 

That's OK.  I like the word crawdad.  And they tend to flourish near marinas.... 

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