English Language: Bizarrely Precise Animal Vocabulary

As hinted at in the Amazing Mules post, due to some historical quirks, the English language has a truly ridiculous amount of incredibly specific words relating to animals. This goes light years beyond preschool “the Cow Goes Moo” stuff that everybody knows. In fact, most of this is so insanely, ludicrously exacting that you’re unlikely to ever use it or even know it, unless you take up a hobby related to the animal in question, in which case it falls under specialized jargon. Why learn it at all then? Because these words can reveal an awful lot about the history and society that produced them, and the people who need this vocabulary today. You’re not going to come up with and agree on an intricate vocabulary relating to, say, inducing a bird of prey to hork up a hairball made of its un-digestible prey remains – called casting, unless it’s really important. Rest assured, what you see here is just the very tip of the English animal terms iceberg.

Here’s your obvious LANGUAGE WARNING for the post: due to use as insults, some of these words have become “bad words” in modern English. I can’t censor anything, since the whole point is to learn the vocabulary.


Keep an Eye Out! It’s Historical Background!

There are a few processes at work here, as to why English has so many animal vocabulary words. Let’s look at four of them:

  1. Modern English is a constantly changing mishmash of several languages. At the time in which these animals were so important, the Normans were in power in England, and a lot of the courtly animal-terms were adopted from their language. This is especially obvious in the case of meat vs the animal it comes from. This is why it’s a quarter pound ground beef (beuf) burger, and not a quarter pound ground COW FLESH burger. As a contrasting example that proves the rule, this didn’t happen in the related language German, and that’s why in that language, pork is literally SWINE FLESH.
  2. (Highly ritualized) hunting was a foundation of medieval European society, and was a means of enforcing class dynamics. Proper use of the jargon separated the nobles from everyone else, and maintained the shape of society. There are several weird holdovers of this dynamic today, that we notice from the United States of America, where we jumped the tracks before a few key social changes in Britain, proper. There’s probably a whole post on this in the future, but, suffice to say in Britain hunting and hunting opposition is very much tied into class conflict, where here it isn’t so much. Robin Hood was outlawed for killing the King’s deer, but here everybody was eating venison to survive, and even today we just try to make a buck. Look for animals people probably hunted.
  3. Actual jargon. In the same way that we work with computers as a basic matter of keeping our society running, and therefore we have a bunch of highly technical terms for computers, what computers do, and parts of a computer, when everything ran on literal horsepower, there was a whole host of specialized horse terms. Look for animals people needed and lived closely with in their daily lives, or to do their jobs.
  4. The wanna-be brigade. For some of these animals, when they were beginning to be bred selectively in the 18th and 19th Centuries, people who participated in this dawning animal fancy wanted to make their hobby more respectable and legitimate by coming up with specialized vocabulary, to match the historical ones. Look for animals that were part of the selective breeding boom in the last 300 years, like cats.


Let’s Learn Some Really Precise Animal Terms in English:

Ankole Watusi cattle lying around in a field.

Ankole Watusi cattle in a field. My personal favorite breed of cattle. They’re a status symbol, a medium of exchange, and basically the cattle equivalent of a purse dog. Cows aren’t always about meat and milk.

The Cow Goes Moo!

The sound they make – low

Cows, as a species – cattle

A group of cattle – herd

Cattle-like – bovine

Baby – calf

Female, before first birth – heifer

Female, after giving birth – cow

Male, castrated – ox, steer

Male, adult and intact – bull

Female, born as part of a set of fraternal twins with a male calf, exposed to enough testosterone in the womb that she acts like a bull – freemartin (see what I mean about ridiculously specific?)



The Horse Goes Neigh!

The sound they make – neigh, whinny, snort, scream, nicker

Horses, as a species – horses

A group of horses – herd

A family group of feral horses – band

An all-male group of mostly unrelated feral horses – bachelor herd

Horse-like – equine

Baby – foal

Female, before puberty – filly

Female, after puberty – mare

Male, before puberty – colt

Male, castrated – geldling

Male, adult and intact – stallion, horse

Male, adult, and with an un-descended testicle – ridgling


The Ass / Donkey Goes Hee-Haw!

The sound they make – bray

Donkeys, as a species – donkeys, asses

Doney-like – asinine

A group of donkeys – herd

Baby – foal

Female, intact – jenny, jennet

Male, castrated – gelding

Male, adult and intact – jack


A small flock of sheep on a rainy day.

Sheep are also amazing. Shear them to get wool. The grease from the wool is highly prized lanolin, which is sold in high-end skin creams.

The Sheep Goes Baa!

The sound they make – baa

Sheep, as a species – sheep

Sheep-like – ovine

A group of sheep – herd

Baby – lamb

Female, intact – ewe

Male, castrated – wether (a wether won’t get your ewes preggers, or go aggro on the other sheep, and he’ll follow the herd wherever they go. They used to put bells on them, so that if you heard the belled wether, you’d know where the rest of the sheep were. That’s why the word for an individual that shows the direction that the rest are going, or where they are is BELLWETHER.)

Male, adult and intact – ram


The Whale Goes (cetacean vocal range extends from infrasound to ultrasound – good luck with figuring that out).

A group of whales – pod

Baby – calf

Female – cow

Male – bull


The Cat Goes Meow!

The sound they make – meow, hiss, caterwaul

Cats, as a species – cats

Cat-like – feline

A group of cats – clowder

Baby – kitten

Female, intact – queen

Male, castrated – gib

Male, adult and intact – tom


birds, flowers, and puppies silk scroll.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a human culture that doesn’t have dogs. The style of this Korean silk painting by Yi Am (Joseon Dynasty, first half of the 1500s) just makes them look even softer and cuter. PUPPIES!!

The Dog Goes Bark!

The sound they make – bark, howl, growl

The howling of a pack of hunting hounds on the trail of prey – bay

Dogs, as a species – dogs

Dog-like – canine

A group of dogs – pack

Baby – puppy

Female – bitch

Male – dog


The Falcon Goes Skreeee!

(Except they don’t, generally. The famous piercing scream used as a stock sound effect for birds of prey is actually very specific only to the Red Tailed Hawk, which isn’t even a falcon. Birds you’ve heard this used for, like Bald Eagles, actually make very different sounds – in their case, the Bald Eagle goes tseep eep-eeep eep eep … twitter-itter-itter-itter … twitter-itter … tseep eep.)

Falcons, as a group – falcons

Baby – eyas

Female – falcon

Male – tiercel (Male birds of prey are usually noticeably petite compared to the brawnier females, on average about 1/3 smaller. As such, the males are quicker, but the females generally take larger prey, and were the more favored birds to hunt with.)



The Chicken Goes Cluck!

The sound they make – cluck, cheep, crow

Chickens, as a species – chickens

A group of chickens – flock

Baby – chick, chicken

Female, adult – hen

Male, castrated – capon (Yes, this is a thing. Fun fact about puberty: the signal to stop the growth spurt, develop secondary sex characteristics, and put on muscle in male animals is sent by the testes. Some castrated male animals go through a growth spurt that never slams to a halt like this, since the signal never comes, and get bigger and fatter than they would have, until the rest of their hormonal system just kind of gives up on puberty and settles down. As the biggest, fattest, and most tender of chickenkind, as well as the fact that some surgery is required to make them, capons are pretty expensive. Check the specialty frozen meats in the store to see what I mean.)

Male, adult and intact – rooster, cock


ducks as far as the eye can see.

Although they’re not so common here, and therefore quite expensive, ducks are a hugely important livestock and eggs animal in other parts of the world.

The Duck Goes Quack!

The sound they make – quack

Ducks, as a species – ducks

A group of ducks – flock

Baby – duckling

Female – duck

Male – drake


The Goose Goes Honk!

The sound they make – honk, cackle

A group of geese – flock

Baby – gosling

Female – goose

Male – gander


The Swan Goes (…)

The sound they make – hiss, (there’s a reason they’re called Mute Swans)

A group of swans – flock

Baby – cygnet

Female – pen

Male – cob


What Does the Fox Say?

What does the fox say? – yip, yelp

Foxes, as a species – foxes

Fox-like – vulpine

Baby – kit

Female – vixen

Male – tom


Stealth Veggies

Spring is on the way, and it’s an exciting time of year if you’re planning a garden. What’s that? No space for a garden? Never tried it before? Afraid people will freak out if you plant veggies right in the lawn? Well, never fear, you can grow your own veggies anyway. Shinobi-like, these plants hide in plain sight, but are tough as nails, and hard to kill. They’re probably not informing on you though. Probably.

Cut the top off a gallon jug and stab some holes in the bottom for a portable planter you can put on the steps or a windowsill, or make some space for a new “flower bed” in your yard.

These plants have been chosen based on how tough they are, how tasty they are, and how much like a fancy ornamental garden plant they look.



Purple pom pom chive flowers.

By H. Zell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Just as happy in a small planter as they are in the ground, chives grow lots of purple pom-pom like flowers. If anybody asks, it’s a flower bed, not baked potato topping, or massive amounts of an oniony food crop. As a perennial, chives will come back year after year.



Leafy peppermint growing on the ground.

Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another perennial, and infamous for spreading like a zombie plague, mint doesn’t die unless you cut its head off or destroy the brain. Of course, it doesn’t have either. Mint will come back from even root fragments left in the ground. You’ll probably want to confine it to a planter, so it can’t escape. It also looks like a nice dark groundcover, and makes a good contrast to the chives. It’ll even grow in shade, too.


Lemon Balm

Lemon balm. Like mint, but slightly nubblier and yellower.

By Broly0 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

A close relative of mint, although a little better behaved, Lemon Balm smells and tastes like (guess what?) lemons. Put crushed mint or lemon balm leaves at the bottom of a glass of water for a refreshing treat in Summertime.


Garden Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus

Yellow garden nasturtiums.

By Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re gorgeous, and edible. The leaves are weirdly water-repellent, too. Great for salads or sandwiches! They have spreading stems, so they can be trained to climb, or trail from hanging baskets, if you don’t have any ground to put them on. They’re annuals, though, so you’ll have to save seeds or buy them every year.



Okra flower and pods. Burgundy colored variety.

By Kristine Paulus from New York, United States (Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll need an actual patch of dirt on the ground, or at least a ten gallon bucket or bag and some serious sunshine for this tall garden showstopper. Okra is a relative of hibiscus, which is a very flashy old-fashioned garden plant with big, showy tropical flowers. The bad news? This far North, they’re annuals, so you’ll have to save seeds and replant. They love the heat. So, get a fast-growing variety if you can, and be sure to pick the pods while they’re still 3 – 4 inches long, so they don’t get too tough. You’ll have the main ingredient for all the gumbo you can handle.


Pole Beans Phaseolus vulgaris

Pink common bean blossoms.

By Schnobby (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If all your space is vertical, pole beans or other climbing veggies might be your best bet. Regular, plain old beans actually have beautiful flowers, in lots of different colors, including pink, white, yellow, purple, and red.

Other options might include sunchokes, globe artichoke, all sorts of colorful lettuce, kale, or Swiss chard, and even asparagus. Be creative, and you’ll find you can grow all kinds of things, even in limited space!

Carmichael’s Kids presents award-winning children’s book author & illustrator Peter Brown

Main Library, Thursday, March 15, 6:30 p.m.

From bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator Peter Brown comes The Wild Robot Escapes—a heartwarming and action-packed sequel to The Wild Robot, his New York Times bestseller for middle schoolers about what happens when nature and technology collide. Brown is the 2013 Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator of Creepy Carrots! and his other children’s books—including The Curious GardenChildren Make Terrible Pets, and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild—are all New York Times bestsellers.

Join Peter Brown for a fun, interactive discussion of his work and his latest book,at the Main Library. This program is free, but tickets are required; click here to order.

99 Gross Creepy Crawlies

99 of Katherine’s favorite gross creepy crawlies! Click on a link or use your google-fu to learn about one at a time, or go ahead and binge-read. I don’t judge. (Yes, this is an exercise in the Way of Effective Search Engine Use. Don’t forget Boolean operators, too. It’s how you separate the birds from the baseball teams.) Some of them are strikingly beautiful, like this Pepsis wasp:

A glossy midnight blue wasp with rust colored wings on a yellow flower.

By Pavel Kirillov from St.Petersburg, Russia (Tarantula Hawk Pepsis sp.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Creepy crawlies are rated one * to five *****, as follows:

* = cute or charismatic, not even slightly gross, unless you have a specific phobia of some kind, like a fear of spiders, and even then, you might make an exception. Examples: Ladybugs, Monarch Butterflies, Peacock Spiders.

** = only mildly gross, if you have a thing about critters with too many legs or slime. Examples: Tomato Hornworms, Garden Snails.

*** = medium gross – the standard level of gross. Those things that skitter across the floor in the dark. If you were asleep in bed, you wouldn’t want one to drop on your face without warning. Examples: House Centipedes, European Medicinal Leeches.

**** = these might put you off lunch, or make you itchy just thinking about them, they’re so intensely gross. Most endoparasites like pinworms belong here. I say “most” because It Gets Worse. If that doesn’t make you want to wash your hands carefully every time, I don’t know what will. Examples: Pinworms, Head Lice, Deer Ticks, Hagfish.

***** = the grossest. Read about these, and lose your belief in Nature as a benevolent force. Pure, weapons-grade nightmare fuel. And it’s not even fictional, like the chestbursters from the Alien film franchise (which were based on a mishmash of several real animals, by the way, just scaled up to people size). Five stars and underlined is your official warning for seriously disturbingly gross content. Examples: Deer Nose Botflies, Guinea Worm.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

The Official List of 100 Gross Creepy Crawlies

  1. * Beyonce’s Horsefly (Scaptia beyonceae) – let’s kick this off with one we’ve already covered.
  2. *** Goliath Bird Eating Tarantula – First short entry!
  3. *Stink Bugs
  4. **Isopod Eating Spiders
  5. ****Cheese maggot
  6. * Green Banana Cockroach (Panchlora nivea) – if you never thought a cockroach could be downright elegant, this jade-and-crystal critter might just change your mind. It’s also the first outright link!
  7. **Banana Slug
  8. **Feather Mite
  9. ***Social Caterpillars on the march, in tents (we have Eastern Tent Caterpillars, if you see any like those), just chillin’ on a treeLonomia obliqua caterpillars are venomous, and falling into a colony like that can kill you. Although other caterpillars are venomous, these are notorious killers.
  10. **Scorpions
  11. ***Giant Weta
  12. **Bombardier Beetle – when threatened, these beetles mix chemicals inside their bodies and shoot a jet of boiling hot chemicals out their butts. Nice.
  13. *Water Strider
  14. *June Beetle
  15. *Aphid farming by ants – sweet honeydew.
  16. **Eyelash Mite
  17. **Carnivorous Butterfly – butterflies, feeding on my rotting flesh? It’s more common than you’d think.
  18. **Witchetty Grubs
  19. ***Tarantula Hawk Wasp – big bold beautiful wasps of the genus Pepsis that paralyze and lay their eggs on large spiders, which they bury alive for safekeeping. The grubs eat the spider alive from the inside out, carefully sparing vital parts until last. You’ll notice this becomes a theme, because there’s a LOT of pseudo-parasitic wasps. I’m not kidding. I wanted this to be interesting, so I didn’t just list 100 pseudo-parasitic wasps. Here’s a list just of the Pepsis species alone. Yeah.
  20. *Fig Wasp
  21. *Bee Moth
  22. **Edible Crickets – why of course there’s recipes! The word you’re looking for is “chapulines” and I hope you like spicy flavors and lime! If you can’t get fried crickets, you can substitute with plain corn flakes and season them yourself. Not the sugar frosted kind. Plain corn flakes taste just like fried plain crickets. Or is it the other way around? Hmm.
  23. **Fighting Crickets
  24. ***Deathwatch Beetle
  25. *Velvet Ant
  26. ****Demodex Mites
  27. ****Body Lice – like regular head lice, but adapted to live in your clothes. Lots of animals have lice adapted specifically to them, and the relationships between the lice actually tell you a lot about when the species split from its relatives. That’s how long humans have had clothes: long enough to get our very own clothes lice. They’re vectors for epidemic typhus, among other unpleasant infections.
  28. ****Snake Ticks – like regular ticks, but they specialize in snakes. Google image search at your own peril. Poor sneks. 🙁
  29. *Arctic Woolybear – like regular woolybear caterpillars, but they live in the arctic, and live over a decade as they freeze and thaw with the seasons, for brief speed-eating sessions, before they freeze solid again and spend the winter in suspended animation, like a science fiction space colonist on an interstellar transport.
  30. *Magicicada
  31. **House Centipede – one of the top predators of the basement ecosystem. They routinely eat the next item on the list, which is a great reason to be nice and encourage the centipedes to stay.
  32. ***Brown Recluse Spider
  33. *Ant Lion/lacewing – these guys are awesome, and they’re easily found in bare dirt or loose sand, where they dig pits and wait for ants to stumble in.
  34. **Cochineal – a scale insect that lives on prickly pear cactus, and the source of the versatile red dye carmine, AKA “natural red 4” in your list of food additives. It’s perfectly safe for consumption. Remember: it’s not a case of IF you’re eating insects, it’s a case of how much.
  35. ***Bagworms
  36. **Silkworms
  37. *Jewel Beetle – the beetles whose elytra are used for beetle wing embroidery.
  38. *****Deer Nose Botfly
  39. *Plant-eating Spider Bagheera kiplingi feeds almost entirely on plant matter: the beltian bodies of acacias.
  40. **Decorator Crab – crabs that decorate themselves with bits of their environment to blend in better, hooking debris onto Velcro-like extensions of their shells. Fabulous!
  41. ***Wolf Spider – widespread spiders that hunt actively rather than waiting in a web for prey. They take very good care of their babies, carrying them around until they’re big enough to take care of themselves.
  42. **Lac Beetle
  43. *****Tapeworms – brain cysts
  44. **Sand Fleas
  45. *Preying Mantis
  46. **Dung Beetle
  47. **Giant Isopod – the giant, deep-sea relatives of our familiar roly-poly. You can get phone holders in the shape of one.
  48. *Roly Polies – the roly-poly, everyone’s favorite land crustacean.
  49. **Puss Caterpillar – although the caterpillars of the Southern Flannel Moth have a cute name, their fluffy hairs can deliver a nasty sting.
  50. **Hissing Cockroach
  51. **Bullet Ant
  52. **Velvet Worm
  53. ***Honeypot Ant
  54. *Diving Beetle
  55. **** The Fish Tongue Isopod (Cymotha exigua) – It’s a parasitic isopod that replaces fish tongues for a living.
  56. *Lightning Bugs
  57. **Coconut Crab
  58. **Fire Ant
  59. **Jorogumo
  60. *Leafcutter Ant
  61. *Water Collecting Beetle
  62. ***Giant Red Leech
  63. ** Peacock Tarantula (Poecilotheria metallica)This royal blue and white tarantula is one of the prettiest spiders, which is actually saying something. There are some extremely fancy spiders out there.
  64. *Emerald Ash Borer
  65. ****Colonial Huntsman Spider
  66. ***Goliath Beetle
  67. ****Chigoe Flea
  68. **** Bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) – you probably already know about these. And maybe you even know a few unsavory details about their personal lives.
  69. *****Guinea Worm
  70. **Gall Wasp
  71. ****Medicinal Leech
  72. *Rocky Mountain Locust – Everyone remembers the Passenger Pigeon, but not the Rocky Mountain Locust. Let’s fix that right now.
  73. *Cotton Boll Weevil – historically significant pest of cotton plants. Between the weevil and depleted soil, the South’s cotton cash-crop industry couldn’t survive the onslaught, and George Washington Carver promoted peanuts to help farmers transition to more sustainable industry, reliable profits, and better farming practices. He didn’t invent peanut butter, he saved the South’s economy… with SCIENCE. The only creepy crawly on the list to have its own public monument.
  74. ***Twisted Wing Parasite
  75. *Orchid Mantis
  76. *Giant Stick Insect
  77. ***** Human Botfly – Botflies generally lay their eggs on animals, and the maggots tunnel into the flesh to grow up. This one’s famous for feeding on people, although it’s not the only one that does.
  78. * Orchid Bee – glitzy green bees that collect orchid (and other plant) scents in special leg pockets. If these were humans, you’d try to get a date by going to a store, and stuffing your pants with the entire contents of the scents section.
  79. ** Diving Bell Spider – these mostly aquatic spiders spin webs that trap air under water like a diving bell. Hairs on their abdomen trap air as well, so that they can take their air supply with them.
  80. **Cat Flea – not just for cats, cat fleas feed on lots of mammals.
  81. *Vulture bee
  82. *Blowfly
  83. *Golden Orb Weaver
  84. ***Phorid Fly
  85. *Peacock Jumping Spider
  86. *Killer Bees – the story of the creation of “Killer Bees” is a fable in the problem with over-optimistic thinking. European honeybees are not very aggressive, and they live in large colonies to put aside so much honey. Sadly, they don’t do well in high heat and humidity. African Honeybees thrive in tropical heat, but live in small colonies, and are very aggressive, to deal with creatures like the Honey Badger. A scientist wanted to establish a beekeeping industry in Brazil, and thought that if they crossed the European Honeybees with the African Honeybees, they’d get tame bees that lived in large numbers and produced lots of honey, and also did well in hot climates. Unfortunately, what they got instead were bees that lived in large numbers and produced lots of honey but got the African Honeybee aggressiveness instead.
  87. **Saddleback Caterpillar
  88. *****Mangoworm
  89. *****Horsehair Worm
  90. ***Hagfish
  91. *Arachnocampa fungus gnat
  92. *** Black California Sea Hare (Aplysia vaccaria) – A huge black sea slug the size of a cat. Even though it’s just big and slimy, it got an extra star for its gargantuan size.
  93. **Sausage Fly – Siafu, African Driver Ant – specifically, the big, sausage-link looking males, and what happens to them.
  94. **Japanese Giant Hornet
  95. **Ladybug
  96. **Anopheles gambiae mosquito
  97. **Aedes aegypti
  98. ***Sea cucumber – these majestic sea creatures have a really basic anatomy. Basically, they are a tube from mouth to butt. Food goes in one end, and waste out the other. Some can also eject spaghetti-like tubes that compose part of their respiratory system as a defense mechanism, in the hopes that a predator will be entangled or leave the slimy rest of the sea cucumber alone. Don’t worry, the tubes can grow back.
  99. ****Sea cucumber butt tenants – being a relatively simple tube, sea cucumbers are also hosts to lots of other, smaller animals, some of which don’t merely live under or on the sea cucumber, but actually inside the sea cucumber. Since the mouth is surrounded by tentacles and backed sometimes by calcified plates, the prime real estate inside a sea cucumber is the butt. Nice. Here’s a sea pig – one of the most charismatic of these inspiring creatures – and its bevy of attendant shrimp.

The Underground Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


Jackaby is the first book in the Jackaby book series

Jackaby by William Ritter

I am very “eat with your eyes first” when it comes to picking books to read. This is the main reason why I picked up the book Jackaby by William Ritter in the first place. The book cover is a crisp aquamarine color with a side profile of a man in Victorian dress.  Side note to mention is that I love stories set in Victorian times, it’s my favorite story setting in both television and on paper. A splash of red in the center contrasts with the aquamarine backdrop and draws your eyes to a woman in a blood red Victorian gown walking down what seems to be a cobblestone street toward an illuminated crimson door. The second thing that caught my eye was a review featured on the cover by the Chicago Tribune stating “It’s Sherlock Holmes crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

From BBC’s Sherlock

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Jackaby is the first book in a somewhat historical supernatural thriller series by William Ritter that takes place in the fictional city, New Fiddleham, which is located in the New England region of the United States in 1892.  Our main character, Abigail Rook, has just arrived in town and is almost immediately swept up into a grizzly serial murder mystery, which is fine for Abigail, who is tired of being treated like a porcelain doll, just because she is a woman from an upper class English household, and is in search for her next big adventure.  One of Abigail’s greatest fears is to have to return to her family home in England, having failed in every capacity in her search for independence.

There is a fleeting moment in Jackaby, which I hope that Ritter expands on in the series, where Abigail first realizes that she has left the stable security of high society and that it is that same high society, who now judges her by whose company she shares. The book picks up with Abigail in a time where she has just reached a crossroads and has made her decision to carry on with her quest for adventure instead of trying to return home.

From the very beginning I liked that she is a person who makes her own decisions and follows through with them. As the narrative is seen through Abigail’s eyes, we as the readers are introduced to the title character, R.F. Jackaby, when she is.  Jackaby the character is someone that society, including the police, has written off as insane which can cause some problems when your occupation is that of a private detective.

As our story progresses Jackaby opens Abigail’s eyes and mind to a supernatural world that goes unseen by all except Jackaby. Jackaby is a Sherlockian type who wears a coat with way too many pockets and who can’t tell the difference between gunpowder and paprika. What I like most about the character Jackaby is that he doesn’t care what society thinks of him, he only cares about helping people who are in trouble, be it supernatural creatures or an ordinary person on the street.

As I am a fan of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the CW’s Supernatural I enjoyed the creatures and legends that Ritter included in the story.  As I read I tried to guess the legends and creatures featured, but was surprised to find that I was wrong most of the time.  I found myself running along with Abigail and Jackaby on their investigation trying to piece together the evidence and find the murderer. I found the pacing of the book relatively fast without missing opportunities for description or helpful insights from Abigail.

However as I write this review, I have found that even though Abigail gives great descriptions of the people, scenes, and actions around her, she fails to really describe herself in great detail so I think I would like to give the book a second read. I think Jackaby hits many genres and would interest many types of readers from those looking for a new realistic fantasy to someone looking for a gritty mystery.

The book is also the beginning of a series so if you are someone like me who likes book series this is the book for you.

Abigail and Jackaby’s story continues:

Beastly Bones is the second book in the Jackaby book series.

Beastly Bones by William Ritter

Ghostly Echoes is the third book in the Jackaby book series

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

The Dire King is the fourth book in the Jackaby book series.

The Dire King by William Ritter

Vocabulary Words

Why brush up on your vocabulary? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. As an exercise, you can also try to write a story using ALL of the vocab words, no matter how random.

Autogyro – An aircraft that gets its lift from autorotation (what happens when a helicopter loses power to the main rotor) of a large, unpowered rotor, rather than fixed wings. It gets thrust from a propeller in front (or behind). Hilarity ensues.

Blinkered – Blinkers are eyewear for horses that blocks the creature’s incredibly broad peripheral vision (horses can see almost 360 degrees around them, except directly behind their butt, and right in front of their face), making sure the horse can focus only on things in front of them. To be blinkered is to be blind to anything else but what you’re focused on, as if you were wearing metaphorical blinkers. The black cups behind the eye of this horse’s green hood are blinkers.

A horse wearing a green hood with black blinkers behind the eyes.

By nakashi from Chofu, Tokyo, JAPAN (P6053439) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Brazen – Incredibly bold. OR Literally made of brass. Whichever. The famous Benin Plaques (infamously looted from Benin) are made of cast brass. The palace roof beams were capped with these brazen relief panels.

Bunting – Another one with multiple meanings, none of which are remotely related! The act of hitting a bunt in baseball, where you intentionally hit the ball very short into the infield. OR Cloth streamer-like decorations for a parade or party. OR Certain species of small songbird. OR That “friendly headbutt” thing cats do.

Dewlap – Dangly skin under the neck. Anoles are lizards famous for their large dewlaps. This bull at a fair has a magnificent dewlap:

zebu bull at a mexican fair. With bouncy castle in the background. he's got a saddle on.

By A01333649 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ire – rage, wrath. Very much angryness. Flip all the tables.

Orthodox – literally “correct practice” – the conventional, accepted way to do things.

Rancid – Fat that has gone bad from exposure to oxygen has gone rancid. Rancid bacon smells gross. Don’t cook with it.

Scurvy – A disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C in the diet. That’s why you eat your fruits and veggies! Especially common with sailors, before people figured this out completely, because they’d be away for months at a time, and fruit and veggies wouldn’t keep, but ship’s biscuits (hardtack) and salted meat would.

Serial – Something that occurs more than once on different occasions. The reason Charles Dickens’ books are so long is that they were published serially, in chapters.


Everything in a Sentence:

An orthodox investigation – focused on mechanical causes and pilot error – would never have turned up the real cause of fatalities after the autogyro crash in the remote Canadian wilderness. Blinkered as they were by a focus on more common causes, the team did not accept the brazen insistence of the medical examiner that, although they had survived the crash relatively unharmed, the crew had died of scurvy, after the emergency beacon had failed to activate and all they were left to eat was a tin of rancid cashews.

The head of the investigation team looked out on the forest once the site was accessible in the Spring. Buntings flitted in the splintered trees. His jowly dewlap shook with ire – how many of these serial tragedies must occur before the emergency beacons were improved to survive crash forces, or flight crews required to carry lemonade concentrate? The accident report would be scathing, and take the industry to task for their negligence of health and safety.


In the middle of Winter, in our temperate climate, you might not think there’s much nature to be seen. But, right now, with leaves off the deciduous trees, it’s the best time of the year to spot a freaky plant parasite of trees. Plants grow so slowly, that you might think they’re not very lively, or even boring. Look closer, though, and be patient, and you might see that plants are perfectly capable of as much drama and violence as animals are, if given enough time. From competition to chemical warfare, plants are actually fairly exciting, and this post is all about the most famous plant parasite of all.

Mistletoe is the common name of a family of related plants, the Santalaceae, nearly all of which are parasites of other plants, mostly trees. During the Summer, when their host trees are covered in leaves, you might not even know they’re there, but in Winter, the mistletoe growing on the tree is exposed, evergreen, when the rest of the tree is left bare. From a distance, mistletoe growing in a tree looks like this:

Green, bushy mistletoe in a bare tree.

By Lienhard Schulz (Own work) CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a little green bush, perched in the branches of a tree. How does it happen? Well, here in Kentucky, we mostly have Phoradendron leucarpum, which makes white berries.

Eastern white mistletoe berries.

By Joe Decruyenaere (originally posted to Flickr as 010408 080) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the berries are poisonous to mammals, birds love them, and eat them, pooping out the seeds on the branches of trees, and then the seeds germinate. The seeds sprout, but instead of making roots like other plants, they make a structure called a haustorium which penetrates and connects with the host plants’ vascular system through the bark, delivering nutritious sap to the mistletoe. These little green vampires continue to suck the sap of their hosts while also growing green leaves and stems, in the form of a bushy growth. Our mistletoe is capable of making its own sugars with sunlight energy, just like regular plants, to some extent, but it can’t make roots and instead literally taps into the host to get what it needs.

mistletoe on a branch, chillin' like a villain.

By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Email the author: David R. Tribble Also see my personal gallery at Google Photos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few mistletoe bushes won’t hurt a healthy tree, but one that’s already sick could be killed by a very heavy infestation. Mistletoe bushes are just like plant leeches, if, instead of biting, a leech actually grafted itself to you, interconnecting your arteries with itself. I also just found out that some South African mistletoes – like Viscum minimum – don’t even go as far as to make a little bush. They don’t photosynthesize to any noticeable extent, living almost entirely inside their Euphorba succulent host, bursting out only to flower and set fruit.

Tiny Visicum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne?

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Look at those tiny Viscum minimum plant growths, barely noticeable on the surface of a succulent, like plant acne. Plantcne? So cute, yet so creepy. Here’s the flowers:

Tiny Viscum minimum flowers.

By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Alien chestbursters, but permanently attached. And cute.

Have a safari in your own neighborhood this Winter. Look for mistletoe bushes. Notice birds – we’ve got different birds staying here in Winter, compared to Summer. Listen for Great Horned Owls staking out a territory. Even in Winter, nature never sleeps, and there’s wonders all around you, if you just keep aware of them. Including the weird tree-leeches known as mistletoe.

That Actually Happened – John Adams and Benjamin Franklin Slumber Party

It’s kind of adorable. (And a nice contrast to some of the grisly things that have been featured in this series so far.) The nutshell version is that one time, in the middle of a diplomatic mission to talk to Lord Howe during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ended up sharing a tiny bed in a tiny room in a tiny inn together, and argued about whether night air makes you sick. Of course this ends with a massive scientific lecture by Benjamin Franklin while John Adams falls asleep from sheer boredom. We know this actually happened, because John Adams kept a diary. Read the entry here. It’s an absolute treasure trove of historical details that might otherwise be skipped over. I bet you didn’t even know that there was this (failed, obviously) attempt to broker peace in the middle of the Revolution. I’ll go over some choice passages:

Monday September 9, 1776.
Resolved, that in all Continental Commissions, and other Instruments where heretofore the Words, “United Colonies,” have been used, the Stile be altered for the future to the United States.
Dang, guys, this is when they named the United States. It takes them a few months to get to it, actually, from the Declaration of Independence in July. There’s a definite sense that this new country and government thing is literally being made up as they go along.

On this day, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Edward Rutledge and Mr. John Adams proceeded on their Journey to Lord Howe on Staten Island, the two former in Chairs and the last on Horseback; the first night We lodged at an Inn, in New Brunswick.
By “Chairs” he means sedan chairs like this one:
Lady in a sedan chair, with two porters lifting the chair.

This is a much later sedan chair, and it’s from Turkey, but litters just like this one were very popular forms of transportation in the 1700s. When it’s set on the ground on its feet, the passenger gets in and out through the door in front. It was easier to get through narrow streets in an urban environment, and it was more comfortable if you didn’t want to be jostled around in a carriage, or didn’t feel well enough to ride a horse or walk.

Since John Adams is on a horse, and the other two are in sedan chairs, this gives us even more information. They’re traveling far enough that you would ride rather than walk, and obviously more than one day’s journey away, if they had to stay in an inn. John Adams is feeling fine, because he’s riding a horse. Maybe since they’re in sedan chairs, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge are both unwell, and indeed, Benjamin Franklin was known to have gout in addition to the fact that he was about seventy at the time. (Interesting aside about sedan chairs: although the sedan chair is almost extinct in the United States, this is not the case in other places, for example some versions of traditional Chinese weddings practically require one, leading to wedding sedan chair rental companies.) We can ALSO infer that there’s more than just these three people on this diplomatic mission, since somebody else has to carry the sedan chairs, at least.

On the Road and at all the public Houses, We saw such Numbers of Officers and Soldiers, straggling and loytering, as gave me at least, but a poor Opinion of the Discipline of our forces and excited as much indignation as anxiety.
So, the Continental Army is in horrible shape, in terms of actually staying an army. Yikes.

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window.
Not even a fireplace. I hope the bedcover was warm, at least.

Portrait of a frowzy looking John Adams.

John Adams. I wanted to go with lesser-known images for this one. You already know these people from the (idealized) portraits on the money.

The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night blowing upon me, shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.
Huh. So, Adams isn’t feeling so good, either. This is one thing you learn when you get into history in depth: everybody was sick all the time, and health was an absolute obsession. This fear of the “Evening Air” is about the Miasma Theory of disease, which was a medical belief that sickness was caused by bad air, especially air at night. (We have a fossil of this in the name for the disease malaria – mal aire, bad air.) Note that neither Adams nor Franklin feel the need to explain any of this or point out that bad air makes you sick, and that the ensuing epic lecture is about what kind of bad air makes you sick, since everybody is certain that it’s true. Bacteria and viruses haven’t been discovered yet.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, in 1777.

Benjamin Franklin just one year after the events of the entry, in 1777.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep….
Awwwwww. That’s downright adorable. As you can tell, two centuries ago in the just-barely-a-thing-that-day United States, snuggly sleeping arrangements between adults were commonplace, especially if you’re squished into a small room with one bed and a super-enthusiastic scientist. Franklin getting cranked up about Night Air is also a reminder that he was rockstar-famous before the revolution due to his experiments with electricity and involvement in the scientific community. Franklin also wrote an academic essay about farting.
Figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

“Bad Air” aside, you do have to know a thing or two about ventilation to improve the wood burning stove. Above: figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

It’s worth it to read the whole diary entry, which features more discussion of Evening Air and the common cold, as well as an incredibly polite hostage situation:
There were a few Circumstances which appear neither in the Journals of Congress nor in my Letters, which may be thought by some worth preserving. Lord How had sent over an Officer as an Hostage for our Security. I said to Dr. Franklin, it would be childish in Us to depend upon such a Pledge and insisted on taking him over with Us, and keeping our Surety on the same side of the Water with Us. My Colleagues exulted in the Proposition and agreed to it instantly. We told the Officer, if he held himself under our direction he must go back with Us. He bowed Assent, and We all embarked in his Lordships Barge. As We approached the Shore his Lordship, observing Us, came down to the Waters Edge to receive Us, and looking at the Officer, he said, Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it, I will consider it as the most sacred of Things. 
This is what it looks like when all sides of a dispute completely agree on what the rules of conflict are (even a full-on war). No misunderstandings, no messy misinterpretations (NSA classic example linkage!). Adams, Franklin, and Rutledge didn’t bring the hostage along with them because they thought that they were safe, instead, they thought that Howe might be ruthless enough to not honor the agreement anyway (“it would be childish in Us to depend on such a Pledge”), and that they had a chance to make a very generous gesture of trusting Howe without actually placing trust in him by bringing the hostage back to him rather than leaving the hostage at camp. It was also really gutsy to go through with the meeting anyway. But, Howe saw that them bringing the hostage back was very generous decision, and decided to honor it by not arresting them after the conference failed. (“Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it“)  It all looks very gracious on the surface, but by everyone making such a show of this graciousness and generosity and honor, it safeguards norms of behavior that make it possible to get business and diplomacy done.

That’s what etiquette does, actually. The purpose of etiquette is to give people a common framework around which to structure their interactions so that they can be sure that their own relationships and interests are protected, and they know exactly where they stand with each other.

That Actually Happened – Johan de Witt

A picture of Johan de Witt.

This guy. You’re probably getting bored already. That would be a mistake, because this is about to get so intense, that this is one of the only pictures of him I have that are safe to post.

It should be some kind of crime to make history boring. Suppose I start off by saying “let’s take a serious in-depth look at 17th Century Dutch political history!” I bet you can almost feel your brain trying to shut off, to preemptively protect you from soul-crushing boredom. This is probably because you have been conditioned by your school career so far that history is about names, dates, and broad-strokes narratives that have no relevance or interest to you. Honestly, this is only because names and dates are easy to test in a multiple-choice kind of way. The truth, of course, is murkier, messier, and way more interesting. Once you look closer, though, you’ll find that a lot of the time, not only does history make a lot more sense in detail, but that more outrageously dramatic things have actually happened than anybody could make up. One of my favorite examples is Johan de Witt. In this post, the part of Johan de Witt will be played by swans, retroactive allegories, and other Dutch Golden Age paintings (sometimes all three at the same time).

This is your CONTENT WARNING: sometimes, history is seriously grisly, and one of the main factors in making history boring is sugar-coating everything for kids.


Let’s jump right in the deep end with the 17th Century Dutch political history. It turns out, this is a very good place to start. Things were not going well for the Netherlands in the mid 1600s. Or, rather, maybe they were going TOO well. Dutch merchants were making a butt-ton of money off international trade, and the other European powers wanted a sweet slice of that l33t l00t. As usual, this is where things go abruptly pear-shaped.

The Netherlands also had a very complicated system of government that I still don’t quite understand, but find fascinating. As far as I can tell, it’s that different states in the alliance that made up the Netherlands at the time chose (Elected? Hereditary? Appointed by a council? Who are elected? Who are hereditary?? Different rules in different states?!??) Stadtholders who sat on a national-level council for the whole Netherlands. Who then voted (or something) on what should be law. There was also a King, William III of Orange, who some of the states didn’t accept as King. But a King was sometimes electable as a Stadtholder, anyway. Like Princess Leia?? How on Earth did these guys do so well in the run-up to all this? How does this even function? (Spoiler alert: not well.) Still with me so far? Here’s where we get to Johan de Witt. In 1653, he was elected Grand Pensionary of the States of Holland, which was by far the most powerful bloc in the Netherlands anyway, so he was effectively the person running the country, which he did with quite some success for a good long time.


From Bad to Worse

Because of the political infighting in the council between Stadtholders, and the fact that a lot of the opponents had connections in the Army, Johan de Witt supported actions to defund the Army in favor of the Navy, the strategic reasoning being that since Netherlands are mostly a peninsula and islands, the best defense would be to put all of the funding eggs in the Navy nest. Like so:

Mute Swan eggs in a nest on water.

Richard Mayer [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It Gets Worse

The Dutch figured everything was fine, because although France, England, and Spain were all competitors with them, none of these countries have any sort of history of getting along well at all. In fact, they often go to war with each other for a century or so at a time, or have massive religious differences (super important since Europe had just ended a huge round of religious wars), and/or send armadas against each other. There’s no way that all three would gang up on the same side just to plunder the Netherlands, right? Until they did. So, Spain, England, and France all joined Team Let’s Loot the Netherlands, and invaded. The navy, although successful at sea, wasn’t so useful when the French army could just march straight North. Surrounded and rapidly overrun by being attacked by all the major powers in Europe at once, things were not looking good for the Netherlands. If this were a kaiju movie, this is the point where things can’t get any worse, so they summon Godzilla.

Mute Swan threat display.

They don’t do this to be pretty. This is a threat display. Get out of the swan’s Personal Space, or get Tyrannosaurus rek’d. Mute Swans also “dance” as pairs, to reaffirm their bonds, and to demonstrate that they’re a couple, holding down a territory for the breeding season, and therefore likely to attack.


It Gets Even Worse

Did I mention that much of the Netherlands is actually below sea level, and on reclaimed land, surrounded by a system of dikes and elaborate civil engineering to keep the sea from flooding it? Such as a whole bunch of really cool mini-windmill water pumps to gradually ladder the water out of fields to higher elevations, and eventually back into the sea. Yeah, there’s that. In desperation, they actually blew holes in their own flood defenses, flooding large swaths of the countryside to slow down the invaders’ advance. The year of the invasion, 1672, is called the Rampjaar or “Disaster Year” for obvious reasons. Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis were blamed for the invasion and mismanaging the government leading up to the war. Cornelis was arrested and jailed for treason, but never confessed, despite being tortured. (The way the judicial system worked at the time, they couldn’t convict without a confession, which means torture, usually.)


MUCH WORSE (Knock Knock… It’s An Angry Mob…)

So, eventually, they had to let Cornelis go, and Johan de Witt came to pick him up from the jail, since Cornelis wasn’t in good enough condition to leave on his own. While the brothers were inside, an angry mob gathered in the streets, dragged them out and killed them both, and then removed some of their internal organs (livers and hearts), cooking and eating them, and leaving their mutilated, butchered bodies to hang in the public square.

Dutch Golden Age painting of a slaughtered pig.

Like this, but with people. Yes, there’s a painting of the aftermath of the riot, if you’ve got a strong stomach and enough morbid curiosity to image search it, because this is the Netherlands, and they painted everything. This painting is The Slaughtered Pig by Barent Fabritius, 1656.



The destruction of the dikes did help stave off the invasion, and the Netherlands survived the Rampjaar of 1672. Rumors persisted that William III of Orange set up the brothers for the mob attack. He went on to become King of England later, in yet another weird historical twist ending. Popular perception eventually softened to the de Witt brothers, and a painting of a swan defending its nest was famously retroactively assigned as an allegory for Johan de Witt defending the country, and the whole messy episode of (possibly conspiratorial) politically-motivated rage-cannibalism became the sort of thing you might never know if you stick to names and dates. So don’t stick to names and dates. Deep-dive into history, and there will be plenty of surprises.

A painting of a swan defending its nest.

The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijin, CA 1650.