I was reading Roger Angell’s recent New Yorker reminiscence about his stepfather, E.B. White (known to his intimates as “Andy”), when I came to the following paragraph:
The other sentence-closer in the passage is “death,” and Andy must have ceased in time to be astonished at how often the theme and thought recurred in his writing. It runs all through his sweetly comical piece “Death of a Pig,” in which he tries ineffectually to deal with the crisis of a young pig of his who has stopped eating. Castor oil doesn’t help, nor does his own sense of “personal deterioration,” or the ministrations of Fred [his dachshund], who accompanies him on trips down the woodpath through the orchard to the pigyard, and also makes “many professional calls on his own.” The pig dies, nothing can be done about it, and it is the profusion of detail—his feeling the ears of the ailing pig “as you might put your hand on the forehead of a child,” and the “beautiful hole, five feet long, three feet wide, three feet deep” that is dug for the pig among alders and young hackmatacks, at the foot of an apple tree—that makes its death unsentimental and hard to bear.
The word hackmatacks stopped me cold; from context it apparently referred to some kind of plant, but neither I nor my wife (a New Englander) was familiar with it. When I got home I checked my dictionaries and discovered that both Webster’s and the OED said it was another word for the tamarack (Larix laricina). Case closed, one might think (except for the odd similarity of the two words)—but I checked the AHD just for completeness and found that that excellent dictionary identified it rather with the balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), a tree of an entirely different genus. A competitive googling produced 755 hits for “hackmatack, larix” and only 342 for “hackmatack, populus,” but that’s not exactly a scientific way of deciding the matter. It seems odd to me that dictionaries cannot agree on the referent of this uncommon but well-established word; can anyone shed light on this?