aucupate, aucupation

Business, we generally assume, is all about busyness. But sometimes the best occupation is aucupation. They also serve who stand and wait, and sometimes the best angle is to go angling. Bide your time. Watch while you wait willingly. Don’t just do something, sit there. Aucupate: go bird-catching.

The verb aucupate and its noun derivative aucupation trace back to Latin avis ‘bird’ and capere ‘take’. Remember that v in Latin was really u, classically said as a vowel /ʊ/ or consonant /w/ (u is a more recent way of writing it, and v has come to represent a version of the consonant that, in Latin, developed later). When avis joined capere to make aviceps ‘bird-catcher’ it was originally said like “owie keps,” which is how it came to be cooked down to auceps – which is a more immediate source of aucupate.

We know how you catch a squirrel: Climb up a tree and act like a nut. But how do you catch a bird? Not while it’s flying, that’s for sure. And not when it could fly away from you either, which it surely would if it saw you coming to catch it. No, unless you’re planning to blast it with birdshot or bullets (which the Romans didn’t have anyway), you’ll want to be crafty: set a trap for it and wait. A net, perhaps, or a snare.

Ah, that reminds me of a song I learned in Sunday school: “My soul has escaped as a bird, out of the snare of the fowler…” Oh, hey, that’s the occupational name for aucupation: if you aucupate, you are a fowler. You catch fowl. But I bet many of you reading this know Fowler as the name of the author of a much-revered guide: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry Watson Fowler. Subsequent editions have involved other hands; I have a copy of The New Fowler’s by R.W. Burchfield. It is a thick, detailed manual of all the snares and other traps awaiting the casual peregrinator in English. The grammarian’s occupation may seem indeed to be aucupation.

Not the editor’s, though. We go through and release all those traps, render them inert, disable them. Our jobs do not focus on sitting and waiting, either: once we have the text, it won’t move until we touch it. No, it is writing that is more the aucupation: to snare the birds of the mind and the world, or to catch them in flight. It is best done as a solitary, quiet craft. Group brainstorming sessions often make such a show of busyness that their noise and distraction scare the more delicate birds away, bringing only the buzzards. Let the writer do the fowling carefully, craftily, quietly. And then pass the results to the editor, who will clean and dress them, perhaps with the aid of a Fowler.

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