Daily Archives: January 20, 2015


I must say I like to have the odd duck. It can be quite nice. Uncommonly among birds, it can even be cooked rare.

I also like to be the odd duck. And to know the odd duck. An unusual person. A rara avis: a rare bird. Not necessarily sui generis – one of a kind – but infrequently seen. A paragon, not an epigone; perhaps also a paradox, an enigma. An enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in bacon and glazed with an orange brandy sauce, and not overdone. Raring to go.

You can cook duck breast rare because ducks are tougher birds (have you ever tried to joint one?), less susceptible to infection; the meat is also better suited to it at least in part because it is better suited to flying. It can make it up to where the air is rarefied, and perhaps by consequence it can manage to be served rare. Indeed, if it is not rare I would rather say it is not well done. As it were.

Rare duck breast is not rare because it is hard to find but rather because it is like a soft-cooked egg. From Old English hrere, probably originally having a ‘shaken, agitated’ sense, we got a word rear that retained its old-style pronunciation, as bear has. It referred to the condition of a slightly undercooked egg. The sense transferred to meat by the 1700s, by which time it had been respelled rare.

A similar change took place later in the US (from the same people who gave us varmint from vermin and grits from groats): the verb rear, as in go up on the hind legs, became rare and is usually seen in raring, especially raring to go. To me it gives an image of a dragster peeling out from the start, the nose lifting up a little, because of the sound of it: “Rare. Rare! Rare rare rare rare rare!” This works better in North America, of course; the British pronunciation, as given by Oxford, is /rɛː/, which has lower air pressure.

But our rare for ‘uncommon’ is our rare for ‘sparse’. Rare soil is soil loosely packed; rare earths are minerals and elements that are sparsely distributed through the soil (specifically they are the lanthanide series of elements). Neither rare soil nor rare earth elements are actually all that uncommon; they are just not highly concentrated. Rare air is not uncommon, either; there’s quite a lot of it surrounding the whole planet – you just have to get up to a loftier level, high peaks and flight paths.

These rares come from the original Latin sense of rara (also rarus and rarum and so on depending on inflection): ‘loose, spaced, porous, sparse, few and far between, uncommon’… It all goes together. But with room between.

So, too, do my friends the rarae aves, the rare birds and odd ducks. They can be found in the loftier levels, sometimes up in the clouds and wanting in concentration, perhaps prone to ducking out of crowded occasions, but – like rare earth magnets – capable of exerting a powerful attraction, one that pulls over a long distance. They will not get or give a lot of rah-rah-rah, but they are always worth the effort to have for dinner – or drinks, or smart conversation, that rare art.


The first time I recall hearing this word was in a recording of an Irishman (middle east coast, I think) that I was listening to for accent acquisition purposes. He talked about dulse, which the fisherman liked to eat because “it gave them a good thirst for their porter.”

What I recall most particularly about his pronunciation was the intrusive schwa. Irish accents, due to a feature of Irish phonotactics, militate against adjacency of /l/ and any of several other consonants. You will hear “fillum” for film, for instance. And so dulse in that accent sounds like Dulles, as in John Foster, as in the Saarinen-designed international airport near Washington DC.

But there’s a good reason for that: the word it comes from in Old Irish is duilesc (in Scots Gaelic, duileasg). There’s an actual e written there. In the English transcription, it was dropped – because they’ll say it anyway. (The e on the end is likely there to keep the s as /s/ and not /z/.) All the non-Irish Anglos, however, seeing the spelling, make it rhyme with pulse and Hulce (as in Tom, the actor). Which actually results in a different sound for the phoneme /l/: back of the tongue higher, tip tense and touching less (if at all). Readier to swallow.

What is dulse? A vegetable, but not a pulse. It’s a kind of seaweed, and yes, it does give you a good thirst for porter or whatever else may be to hand that is wet and copious and dulls the desire. I will say it’s not the dullest thing I’ve ever tasted, nor is it dolce. A bit more like salty licorice painted onto a dishwashing glove. Not the sort of delicacy one fights duels over. In fact, it’s not really a delicacy at all – it’s available in quantity, cheap, and is not actually disgusting.

The phonetically inclined may notice that dulse in the Irish pronunciation, /dʌləs/, is very nearly a rearrangement (anaphone?) of /sæləd/. (A closer anaphone of salad would be dull-ass.) Well enough: you could make a salad of dulse. Mind you, you would probably find yourself wishing you had just eaten it by hand out of a bag. It’s not the sort of seaweed you get on your sushi (which, it occurs to me, I ate at Dulles when we were waiting for our flight home). It’s about as thick as the schwa between /l/ and /s/ in that Irish pronunciation. I mean, it wouldn’t be a dull-ass salad. But it schwa could be intrusive. Better to keep one hand free for your porter.