Daily Archives: June 6, 2012

gecko, get-go

Montgomery Starling-Byrd was back in town on yet another global word-tasting expedition. A few of us joined him for dinner and drinks. He happened to be seated next to Elisa Lively, and I canted an ear to their conversation. Which did not disappoint.

“Well, we ran into trouble right from the get-go,” Elisa was saying.

“From the gecko?” Montgomery said.

“No, from the dog. It kept taking the food.”

“From the gecko,” Montgomery said, seeking clarification.

“Yes, right from the get-go. It liked lizard food right away.”

“As long as it didn’t like lizard for food.”

“Oh,” Elisa said, “that’s a whole other tale.”

“Another tail from the gecko?”

“No, that came later.”

“Where was the tail from?”

“From the gecko, but later. Not from the get-go.”

“I’m afraid I’ve lost the thread of the tale here,” Montgomery said.

“Well, the gecko’s tail was threatened. Actually the dog pulled on it and wouldn’t let go, and the gecko dropped it.”

“Autotomy,” Montgomery observed (that’s the word for when a lizard drops its tail).

“It wanted its autonomy, yes. So that was the end of the tail.”

“And there was no more.”

“No,” Elisa said, “it grew another one. Geckos do that.”

“Indeed they do. It’s a kind of insurance.”

I just about choked on my wine stifling a giggle at the thought of the Geico gecko and its accent, which is not quite as plummy as Montgomery’s.

“That happened more than once,” Elisa said. “But the worst was the noise.”

“From the gecko?”

“Yes, from the very start. Especially from the dog.”


“It didn’t like the noise the gecko made.”

“Ah, yes: ‘Gecko!’ That’s how they got their name. It’s from Malay.”

“The poet?”


“‘I burn the candle at both ends…’ She named the gecko?”

“The… Oh, no, the Malay language. In Malaysia. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay.”

“Oh. Well,” Elisa giggled, “that gecko burned at both ends. It made a noise the dog hated. And so the dog barked like crazy. And the gecko made more noise.”

“A sort of gecko echo.”

“Yeah! And at the other end there was that tale.”

“The end of the tale.”


“From the gecko.”

“No, not from the get-go.”

“From the dog?” Montgomery furrowed his brow.

“No, from the gecko.”

“Are you insane, or am I?” Montgomery said, staring abruptly into his wine glass.

I intervened. “Montgomery! Do you mean to say you are unfamiliar with the Americanism – and Canadianism – from the get-go?” I pronounced it slowly and clearly.

“From the… get? go?” Montgomery said. “Oh yes, I see. Voice and place assimilation with reduction: the /t/ devoices the /g/ after it, but also moves to the back and simply pre-stops the stop. Well, this is a very hockey-sounding term. Or perhaps NASCAR. So I take it that it comes from get going, which has been shortened and treated as a noun.”

“Truncated and mutated,” I said.

“Like my gecko,” Elisa said.

“I don’t think I would,” Montgomery said. “I would as soon have a grackle.”

“I guess your kind of bird is the starling.” Elisa giggled.

“Rather. I prefer a murmuration to the noise of a gecko.”

“So would Lawrence,” Elisa said.

“Who is Lawrence?”

“My dog.”

“Oh,” Montgomery said. “And what, dare I ask, was the gecko’s name?”

Elisa held her hands wide, palms up, as if to say it was obvious. “Gordon, of course!”


Today, through a passing reference in Melville’s Moby-Dick, I became aware of a Norse explorer from the 9th century AD. This was a chap who had mainly commercial interests – killing whales and walruses – but who decided to go see what he could see.

Not that he sailed around the world or anything. You have to remember the time and its limitations. The boats they had were not large. One normally sailed following a coastline, and anchored (or even camped ashore) at night.

But this chap lived in Hålogaland, pretty far north on the Scandinavian coast – so far north that, as he told King Alfred of England, no one lived any farther north, except for occasional Finns; it was all wasteland. Well, one day he decided to see just how far north the land went. So he sailed up along the coast for six days – in three days he was as far as the whale-hunters went, and in another three the land turned eastward. After that he followed it down again and into the White Sea as far as where Arkhangelsk now is. Then, seeing that there were people there (Sámi, as it happens), he turned around and went back home.

So I wonder if, when he passed the northernmost point, he said, “Oh, there!”

If he had, one is tempted to say he could have named it after himself.

This is not actually true. It is true that we call him Ohthere (not pronounced like “oh, there”; stress is on second syllable, there are three syllables, and the th is voiceless), but he spoke Old Norse, in which the expression would have been different, and in which his name was Ottar (which probably means something along the line of “fearsome”). But it sounds nice, doesn’t it?

You could also come up with some other version of his name. Melville actually calls him Other, in fact. Imagine if he had named the northernmost point after himself, and his wife asked him where he was going, and he said, “Oh, somewhere or Other…”

But that’s just silliness. Still, his name pleaseth. I don’t mean Ottar; that’s like Otto and otter and Ottokar and attar and all that, a little brittle. Better the soft cloth of the Alfredian version – it’s a touch more, oh, therapeutic. But note that in the Old English original text, that th is actually written th – not with the thorn (þ) or eth (ð) used to signify dental fricatives. One may surmise that it was thus actually a stop, perhaps with aspiration after it (and – as the preceding h will tell you – even before it, as is the practice in modern Icelandic with double voiceless stops).

Oh, there we go again. Take it as it comes. And take him as he comes. He came to England at some point; after all, he told King Alfred about his voyage north (his recounting was recounted by another; Ohthere was not the author), and about another one south to the bottom of the Jutland peninsula. Where? The south end of Denmark. Oh, there. Yes, there.

Well, he may not quite have been Franklin, reaching for the Northwest Passage, but on the other hand he came back. The gesture of saying his name reminds me of that – it starts at the back of the mouth, with that back vowel /o/, but the lips rounding, as looking forward; and then the tongue darts forward, touches the tip at the teeth, and then at last pulls back into the middle again. There and back again.

If you would like to read the account of Ohthere’s voyages found (as an addition) in Alfred’s version of Orosius, stop by www.oldenglishaerobics.net/ohthere.html. If you would like to read it in Modern English, I recommend dl1.yukoncollege.yk.ca/agraham/ohthere. It won’t take you long.