The Accidental Cannibal

I'm Not the Man I Used To Be

I was reviewing an ichnological manuscript this afternoon, and needed to find out the proper term for quotation marks.

As you would expect, Google led to Wikipedia, which didn't have a clear suggestion. It did, however, tell me the term for the European equivalent.

That word is guillemet. Perhaps best-known in English as the rewind and fast-forward signs on a video player, guillemets are used as quotation marks in many continental languages, so that whilst I might say, "My God!", a Frenchman would say «Mon dieu!»

Rewind, fast-forward.

Do not confuse guillemets with guillemots, Wikipedia told me, and it was wise to do so. Exclaiming Mon dieu! in immediate proximity to two guillemots would probably cause you to get your eyes pecked out, especially during nesting season.

Guillemots in the mist.

I was intrigued as to why the two words were so similar, though, and where they came from. So, as I usually do in matters etymological, I went onto the Oxford English Dictionary website.

There, I learned that guillemots were most probably “little Williams”, and that the name had mutated from various related terms, in the following order:

1603   G. Owen Descr. Penbrokshire (1891) 131   The gwylim.  [from Gwylim]

1620   J. Mason Brief Disc. New-found-land 4   Teales, Twillockes, excellent wilde Duckes.

1631   E. Pellham Gods Power 31   We found abundance of Willocks egges; (which is a Fowle about the bignesse of a Ducke).

1678   J. Ray tr. F. Willughby Ornithol. 324   The Bird those of Northumberland and Durham a Guillemot or Sea hen.

I was especially interesting to see the 1620 entry, as although twillick appears in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, the Newfoundlanders I know call the birds turrs. I once ate turr at a friend's in St John's, and was surprised to find they tasted not of chicken, as all reptilian meats are supposed to, but fishy beef. I wasn't convinced.

A scoff of turr.

Of the guillemets, though, there was no trace in the online OED. The E part was obviously dominant here, and would not contemplate a Channel crossing.

So I had to return to Wikipedia for my confirmation: guillemets were also William-named, allegedly for a printer and engraver called Guillaume Le Be.  Many other languages have their own versions, derived similarly from the diminutive William.  I was delighted to discover that the Irish call them Liamógs.

But then it hit me. If guillemets became Liamógs in Gaelic, surely guillemots did something similar. Liamégs, perhaps. And if I'd eaten one, even one hiding behind another name, I had effectively consumed a miniature version of myself.

It would have been bad enough simply to be cannibalism, but autosarcophagy? The only sensible response is to turn myself in to the authorities, and admit my heinous act, seeking solace only in the fact I didn't really enjoy it.

Guillemots live!

I am sorry, fellow little Williams.  I hadn't realized we were kindred spirits.  I promise to treat you with due respect from now on.

(For those of you more bothered about punctuation than puffins, I eventually decided the phrase I was looking for was inverted commas.)