Butcher Bird.

I’m reading the early stories of Wallace Stegner; so far they’ve mostly taken place in the hardscrabble farmland of southwest Saskatchewan, where he spent part of his youth, and they’re as grim as life there must have been (though lightened by the irrepressible spirits of his young viewpoint characters). The latest, the 1940 “Butcher Bird,” has a number of words and phrases of LH interest. On the first page, the boy reflects on the possibilities of the weather: “If it was rain everything would be fine, his father would hum under his breath getting breakfast, maybe let him drive the stoneboat or ride the mare down to Larsen’s for mail.” Stoneboat? Turns out it’s (per the OED, entry from 1917) “U.S. (chiefly north.) and Canad. A flat-bottomed sled used for transporting or removing stones, and for other purposes.” The first and last citations:

1859 N. P. Willis Convalescent 75 A stone-boat would run glibly over such a shallow snow!
1962 J. Onslow Bowler-hatted Cowboy viii. 79 A stone-boat is best described as a heavy wooden sled, on which can be hauled rocks and stones..dead cows, sick cows, or other heavy objects.

The earlier sense (dating back to c. 1336) is “A boat for transporting stones”; there’s no indication of how it got transferred to the new sense.

There are a couple of odd expressions used by the boy’s brutal father and presumably peculiar to him: “I hope to whisk in your piskers” and “Just thinking about [X] gives me the pleefer.” And the title of the story is itself interesting; it’s a regional expression for the shrike (as the boy’s mother explains to an English neighbor, “They kill all sorts of things, snakes and gophers and other birds”), and the OED dates it back to 1668 (Bp. J. Wilkins Ess. Real Char. 146 “Lanius or Butcher bird, is of three several kinds”), in the etymology saying “Compare French bouchari ‘un des noms vulgaires de la pie-grièche.’”


  1. I think it’s not just that shrikes kill things, but that they store the carcasses by impaling them on thorns, like a butcher’s meat-hook.

  2. Well, I suppose on the prairies the term stone boat would naturally enough be transferred to a basically similar means of moving stones. Steve Romanoff of the Maine folk band Schooner Faire (how did the royals get to Maine, anyway?) wrote a song called “Boats of Stone” about the creaking, leaking near-hulks that transported New England granite and marble to build Washington D.C. in the Federal style:

    To many green New Hampshire towns came this fleet of hand-me-downs,
    Having spent their buoyant youth on coal and lumber,
    They’d all seen better days before the killin’ quarry trade,
    Now everybody knew their days were numbered.

    Up to the loading sheds the leaking hulls would edge,
    Ready for the rubble and the good rock,
    High above the groaning sledge the shrieking gulls would pledge,
    “You’ll never make a round trip to this same dock!”


    Tell me, Mister, did you see the boats of stone?
    Did you see them sailing south to honor Washington?
    From these silent quarries now so overgrown,
    Tell me, Mister, did you see the boats of stone?

  3. I thought stoneboats were used to haul the rocks that come up in New England (and NY state) fields, like here:

  4. David Marjanović says

    Still called Lanius, and in German Neuntöter because of the belief that shrikes kill nine animals and impale them before they start eating the first.

  5. I think it’s not just that shrikes kill things, but that they store the carcasses by impaling them on thorns, like a butcher’s meat-hook.

    Quite right, and in fact that habit provides the kick at the end of the story.

  6. I strongly suspect that “whisk in your piskers” is a spoonerism for “piss in your whiskers.”

  7. You must be right; I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me.

  8. I wouldn’t have thought that ‘butcher bird’ as a name for the shrike was that obscure.

  9. Butcherbird as a term in Australia is alive and well. It refers to kinds of magpie-like birds in the genus Cracticus. They resemble the shrikes with their “larder” habit of impaling captured prey on thorns, tree forks, etc.

  10. January First-of-May says

    This post (and thread) made me finally realize (many years after I had last read about it) why was the Shrike from the Hyperion Cantos named that. (Impalement is involved.)
    I was pretty much neither aware of the bird nor of its habits (though I might have heard of the bird under a different name), and if anything thought that it must have been related to “shriek” in some way.

  11. >> I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me.

    Perhaps because you’re not blessed with a spoonerism generator that runs in background mode in your brain ALL THE DAMN TIME?

  12. I saw the word stone boat (or perhaps stoneboat) the other day in a short story that is set in Arizona in the first half of the 20C. Context made it clear that this boat had wheels, so that’s a third type: a ship, a sled, a wagon.


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