It’s Thanksgiving in Canada, and Columbus Day in the US. Canadian Thanksgiving is a sort of cross between Columbus Day and American Thanksgiving: it’s a long weekend in early October, rather than an awkward Thursday in November; the busiest travel day of the year in Canada is not the day before, though people do travel a lot for Thanskgiving, since it’s a holiday for joining with family; the busiest shopping day of the year in Canada is not the day after. Really, for us in the Great White North, it’s a nice long weekend, more meaningful than Columbus Day but less so than Easter. And, yes, the theme is dominated by gobblers.

When I was at grad school in the Boston area, I found it quite irritating that the holiday was called “Turkey day” at least ten times as often as it was called “Thanksgiving” – sort of like how Canadians keep calling Victoria Day “May two-four.” But even if you choose to eschew the turkey to chew something else, turkeys dominate Thanksgiving the way pumpkins dominate Hallowe’en.

Gobbling has long been associated with turkeys. The sound they make has been described as “gobble” since at least 1680, and within a half century after that (and probably sooner) the bird was being called a gobbler. It’s pure onomatopoeia, and it’s sort of iconic visually, too, with the g with its hanging snood or wattle and the bbl like the tailfeathers. But it’s also ironic, just like calling this entirely American bird a turkey is ironic. The turkey is a symbol of conspicuous consumption precisely because it is conspicuously consumed. The gobbler does not gobble; it, and whatever else is served with it, is gobbled by the collective gobs of those assembled. And yes, by the way, the verb gobble meaning “eat” is likely related to gob meaning “mouth” – or to gob meaning “blob, as of food”. It likely also has a connection to the motion and sound of eating greedily. If the le ending seems familiar, you may recognize it from crackle, crumple, wriggle, giggle, babble, gabble, mumble… all those repetitive little motions… sounds like a family gathering, doesn’t it?

Ah, the good things of the world. We do take them for granted, don’t we? In some ways, Thanksgiving can be a celebration of wanton rapacity and vulgar hedonism. Oh, I’m not a vegetarian, and I like a good feast, too, but I feel that often we aren’t thankful enough for just how lucky we are – or appreciative of how much of that “luck” comes from being on the winning side of a zero-sum game. Consider the extent to which we are gobblers of much more than turkeys.

The conjunction with Columbus Day is a nice reminder that the Americas are as they are now because an assortment of rapacious invaders came in and gobbled it all up. The harvest celebrations that turned into Thanksgiving – brought over from similar celebrations in Europe – certainly were inspired by gratefulness, but mainly gratefulness to God for having given them all this bounty, not so much gratefulness to the people who were already here. The archetypal “first Thanksgiving” image has the Pilgrims sharing bounty with the people who were already there (Wampanoags, as it happens), who had shown them how not to starve. Now you tell me what those people who were already there got in return in the long run.

But I’m not trying to make you feel guilty for what our ancestors did. They did it; we had no choice about being born into the results. We should just appreciate what we have and acknowledge how we come to have it (and do something to help redress the ongoing imbalances created). We should remember, too, that the low prices that allow us to buy so much are aided by people elsewhere in the world being paid awfully poorly for making the stuff. We should be careful not to heedlessly gobble more.

Which is what we seem to do so often. The table groans with goodies; we load up, then lapse into a food coma in front of the TV, and if we’re in the US, the next day we may well go on an buying binge to boggle the gobbling minds (in Canada Thanksgiving is too early for Christmas shopping, and the next day is a work day; we roll on instead to the goblins of Hallowe’en – our buying binge will come, though). We want all the things popular culture tells us we should want – whatever the fashions are now. It’s the state religion: consumerism.

I remember what the good life looked like when I was a kid. Who wouldn’t want a room covered in shag carpet, perhaps a round plush bed – or, better, a waterbed – in the bedroom, and all those nice stone and wood accents that dominated the popular architecture – the turn-key solutions for taste of the time? Today we look on such things with disdain and distaste as the decorative equivalent of gobbledegook, just as in future years we will sneer at what we think is so great now. But it’s what we thought we wanted, and we gobbled it up.

Look now at the epitome of that style: the (now gone) Gobbler motel, bar, and restaurant in Wisconsin, preserved for your visual consumption by the brilliant James Lileks: www.lileks.com/institute/motel/index.html. You must look at it. This word tasting is not complete without a full perusal of this fantastic turkey of a concept motel and restaurant. Snicker now, but when I look at it I experience nostalgia. I remember liking all that. I even remember seeing houses done in much the same decor. We wanted it because it was what we wanted. We gobbled it up.

The Gobbler is now gone, though we gobblers are still here. But we should watch lest again the gobblers become the gobbled. Gobbler makes me think of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s play about a young woman who had grown up having much, and had expensive tastes and overreaching fantasies; those tastes and fantasies owned her and drove her life, and when she would not accept that she couldn’t have it all, those tastes put her in a position of being owned by another. Which she could not live with.

So the gavel falls on the obligations: do not have the head of a gobbler. And now I will gobble no more of your time today with my blogging gabbing.

8 responses to “gobbler

  1. I was gobsmacked by your take on gobbleness, or does that make me gobbleable?

  2. I enjoyed reading it! I get sheer delight by sounds of the words you choose. For me, quintessence of admonition is this line:

    “In some ways, Thanksgiving can be a celebration of wanton rapacity and vulgar hedonism.”

    Euphony : This line is so beautifully crafted! I do not have enough words to appreciate it!

    “So the gavel falls on the obligations: do not have the head of a gobbler. And now I will gobble no more of your time today with my blogging gabbing”

  3. What you write about the ‘archetypal’ first thanksgiving applies also to what, according to a recent Globe article, were pre-Wampanoag thanksgivings on North American soil. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the paragraph, but it sounds authoritative:
    “Who started Thanksgiving?
    If you guessed the American Pilgrims, you’d be wrong. Fifty-six years before the native Wampanoag helped the settlers butter their maize at Plymouth Rock in 1621, a group of 600 Spaniards in St. Augustine, Fla., held a Thanksgiving Day feast to celebrate their safe arrival. Another group held a similar ceremony near El Paso, Tex., in 1598. The Pilgrims, in fact, weren’t even the first Brits to mark the occasion. That distinction belongs to the group of English colonists who landed safely in Virginia in 1619 and thereafter observed an annual day of thanksgiving to God. Nevertheless, the feast now traditionally associated with the holiday owes its popularity to the Pilgrim ritual – though the American date (the fourth Thursday in November) was not formally established until 1942.”
    As it happens, Spanish for “turkey” and “gobble” do not sound suitable for your musings. I typed “The turkeys were gobbling” into my Babelfish translator and was offered “Los pavos engullían”.

  4. sort of like how Canadians keep calling Victoria Day “May two-four.”

    That must be a regionalism; in 22 years of living in BC (and 23 years in Ontario before that), I’ve never, to my recollection, heard anyone refer to Victoria Day that way.

    (That said, the term “Turkey Day” has started to become more prevalent among people I know, and it does irritate me.)

    • It’s something I’ve noticed in Ontario in about the last decade, anyway. Perhaps it hasn’t spread across the country. But I hear it on TV — even on CBC! Grrr. (To non-Canadian readers: a two-four is a 24-pack of beer; Queen Victoria’s birthday was May 24, and Victoria Day is the Monday closest to that; the general assumption is that people all go to their cottages — in Ontario, there’s this weird assumption that everyone has one — or wherever and drink a lot of beer.)

  5. October does seem more reasonable for a harvest feast. By November it would be just too cold or even snowy to have an outdoor feast as pictured in the minds of most Americans. I think we should change ours to the Thursday and Friday before Columbus Day and have a jolly 5 day weekend. Then maybe the dept store xmas decorations wouldn’t come out so early.

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