What's in a Word | All Blogs


Taking a gander at goose and moose

By Debra Dobbins

Two well-composed photos of wildlife in today’s paper prompted this question: The plural of goose is geese, so why isn’t the plural of moose meese? The short answer: setting.


Setting is a literary term meaning both time and place. When we read fiction, we should know a story’s setting. Setting also helps us understand the origins of words. When and where did they come into use?


Goose has the longer and more complicated history of the two words. Webster’s says that it evolved in a roundabout way from the Latin word anser. (We still have the word “anserine,” meaning “of or like a goose, stupid or foolish,” according to Webster’s.)


The Romans brought Latin words into English in two ways: by conquering England and staying there for centuries and also by conquering Germanic and French people who ruled England at various times, too. Goose actually evolved from a Dutch and German word gans, which morphed from anser. It is why we also have gander, the name of a male goose.


Bill Bryson, author of The Mother Tongue, says the plural form of goose was in use during the Old English period in England’s history, which ran from A.D. 450 to 1150. During that time people formed plural words in at least a half dozen ways.


One way was to change the main vowels into different vowels. For example, mouse became mice, foot became feet and tooth became teeth. Eventually the language became easier to learn when most words were simply made into plurals by adding “s” or “es.” Geese, however, was one of the plural forms that did not change.


Moose came into American English much later and in a vastly different environment than Merry Old England. According to Webster’s, moose is an Americanism that was borrowed from the language of the Eastern Abenaki. They lived in the northeastern part of the United States and were part of the Algonquin nation.


Chances are that the Puritans and many other early settlers from across the Atlantic had never seen a moose before. Having no word for it, they took mos from Native Americans and turned it into moose. It’s unclear why its plural is simply moose. Perhaps mooses sounded awkward and the plural of mouse was already mice.


Goose and moose: two short, simple words that demonstrate our language’s long, complex history.


 

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