Reading Jonathan Franzen’s annoyingly self-absorbed “My Bird Problem” in the latest New Yorker, one reason I kept going was the profusion of wonderful bird names: gadwall, veery, redstart, dunlin… Then I hit “parauque” (at the bottom of the middle column on page 66, if you’re following along at home) and thought I’d better look it up so I’d know whether to mentally pronounce it as if it were French or Spanish. Well, it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, so of course I googled it, and was suprised to find only a few hundred hits—bird names shouldn’t be that rare. Following my usual practice with unfamiliar plants and animals, I googled the Linnean name, in this case Nyctidromus albicollis, and what do you know, every hit gave the English name as “pauraque.” So I googled that, and sure enough, there were over 15,000 hits, and when I looked it up in my massive Webster’s Third New International, there it was (pronounced \pau‘räkā\ in their transcription, like “pow RAH kay”). The New Yorker had allowed a misspelled word into their once famously perfect pages. Once again, the modern world had let me down.
I was a bit consoled, or at least distracted, when I followed the trail left by Webster’s laconic definition (pauraque n [MexSp] : CUIEJO) and looked up cuiejo. I was rewarded with this:
cuiejo \kü‘yāhō\ n [modif. of AmerSp cuyeo] : a tropical American nighthawk (Nyctidromus albicollis) the dried and ground bones of which are highly esteemed in parts of its range as a love potion — called also pauraque
“Highly esteemed in parts of its range as a love potion”—why, it’s lexicographical poetry! And the endearingly awkward phrasing “the dried and ground bones of which,” contorted to avoid the perfectly good “whose dried and ground bones,” was the icing on the cake.
Later in the same paragraph Franzen mentions “my first northern beardless tyrannulet”; I liked “tyrannulet” very much but was unable to find it in any dictionaries: not Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, not the big Webster’s, not the OED. And yet it’s an English word in good standing; not only does it get 20,000 Google hits (besides the northern beardless, this page lists dozens of others: Rufous-lored, Cinnamon-faced, Minas Gerais, Oustalet’s, Mottle-cheeked, Rough-legged, Greenish, Tawny-rumped…), it’s the subject of an Encyclopædia Britannica article. So why isn’t it in the dictionary, not even the OED? I’m mystified and annoyed; at least the pronunciation is clear, but what if it weren’t? I’d be lost in the sea of words without a compass!