It is possible that in a past column or two I might have made reference to my mother-in-law; further it is possible that in said reference or references there might have been a maligning whiff in the air. Believe not a word of it! She is a shining paragon of virtue, a sweet, pleasant creature of generous heart, evocative of nothing so much as a gentle summer breeze.
It’s my father-in-law Howard who is the problem.
For months now Howard has been vexing me with his insistence that the Adirondack moose is a creature of fiction – a made-up artifact wrought by over-active promoters who want to show how wild and wooly the region is. Howard, who by now has visited the Adirondacks many times, has seen the moose crossing signs, the moose bumper stickers, moose paraphernalia at the local curio shop, Moose Rivers, Moose Plains, Moose Ponds and even Moose Juice in the grocery store. But no moose. Never once the real thing.
I’m not sure if Howard feels cheated or is simply skeptical of his son-in-law, but his dismissive attitude about the presence of such a noble and magnificent creature in the Park is bothersome. After all, what would the Adirondacks be without the moose? Why does he think all these places on the map are named after moose anyhow?
I myself have seen a moose in the Adirondacks exactly twice. Both sightings were in the Western Adirondacks, the first a clear but distant view across a marsh and the second a much closer experience along the edge of a bog. The creature in this second sighting was obscured by brush to the point that I never got a clear view of him. His evident bulk however, as indicated by the unnerving volume of brush he displaced as he moved, eliminated other possibilities.
I’d long coveted a closer encounter with a moose, but since the afternoon a friend of mine related the story of a trip to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota during which she was charged by a pissed-off bull moose, I’ve tempered my desires. Her description of trees being knocked over as the enraged ungulate came on sticks vividly in my mind.
Of course, who needs a close sighting of a moose in order to appreciate it? Just the very image of one will do! The moose is, after all, a singular beast. With an incomparable snout and gawky legs, not to mention a visage that seems benevolent and well-humored, the moose’s funky collection of accoutrements is nonpareil. Was there ever such a creature?
So singular is the moose that even the word that names him is singular. “Moose.” Savor that word, for there is no better one in the English lexicon. “Moose” has the same no-nonsense satisfaction as the word “dog”: un-fussily monosyllabic, definitively phonetic, vaguely pleasant and uncannily appropriate. But “moose” reaches greater heights than “dog,” or even something like “capybara.” In a way that’s not entirely clear, it’s onomatopoetic. A moose is just “moose,” somehow. There could be no other possibility.
We owe a debt to the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans who named it (the etymology of “moose” is “he strips off,” referring to the moose’s penchant for removing bark from trees). They really nailed it; it’s a linguistic master stroke. Saying the word out loud is so satisfying that it has been a tradition in our household for years to gather and say “Moose” repeatedly, employing various tones and cadences. More than a few observers of this ritual have concluded that we are a family of lunatics, but we know what we are doing and the pleasure of saying its name over and over again has only increased our collective affection for the animal itself.
“Moose” is a word with which one does not mess. For instance, one doesn’t pluralize it: even the plural is singular! Some have tried. A few references to “mooses” can be found – which strikes me as an unintentional opportunity to confuse and insult the nearest married woman. Apparently there was a flirtation with “meese,” which quite frankly is pathetic and only serves to evoke Huckleberry Hound cartoons.
My description of the pluralization problem pales before the wit present in the following note we find in the Wiktionary under “moose” etymology:
The use of moose in the plural is sometimes problematic. The regularly formed plural, mooses, is by now rare and its use may be regarded as irksome and uneuphonious. The form meese—formed by analogy with goose → geese—will in most cases be greeted with a snicker, and is thus generally only appropriate in humorous contexts; even pragmatics notwithstanding, because moose has Algonquian origins—wholly unrelated to the Germanic roots of goose, on whose pattern the plural meese is formed—an umlaut plural form is etymologically inconsistent. The etymologically consistent plural form would be *mosinee, but this plural form sees no use in English. In ordinary common usage, moose is treated as an invariant noun, which means its plural is also moose (as with the names of many animals, such as deer and fish, which are also invariant); however, this usage can sometimes be considered stilted when a group of more than one moose are considered individually, in which case avoidance of the plural may be the best option, necessitating the employment of a circumlocution.
Try saying that out loud in a single breath. I plan to memorize that paragraph and produce it in an out-of-context soliloquy at my next dinner party.
Then there is the question of adjective form – or I should say there is no question of it at all. The first possibility – “moosish” – is a bizarre non-starter. But even the more benign “moose-like” has no place. The moose stands alone in all the universe; how can anything be moose-like? Here, try it if you don’t believe me:
“Wow, that geranium is moose-like.”
“Your mother’s moose-like laughter rubs me the wrong way.”
Nope. Far more satisfying just to say “moose” out-loud, over and over.
“Moose” even stands firm against the contemporary obnoxious trend to turn everything into a verb. I’m told that I have parented my children, for example. I can assure you however, I’ve never moosed them, even when screaming the word at them repeatedly.
Finally, there is this. While digging around for the story of “moose” I learned that a group of moose might be called a herd but can also be referred to a as “fangle.” Fangle! I looked far and wide for any other species whose group would be referred to as a “fangle.” Believe me when I tell you there was none. And of course not! Listen to the phrase, for goodness sakes: a fangle of moose. That’s too perfect. It’s sublime. It belongs on a T-shirt, with no explanatory text to sully it. It’s so expressive I can hardly stand it: “Hide the children, Martha:! Here comes a moose fangle!” The mind boggles.
From Merriam Webster we get the following contribution:
1: a fashion especially when foppish or silly —used with new and usually derogatorily
2: obsolete : a silly or fantastic contrivance
Without question that’s as perfect a fit for a set of moose as could be imagined. So, Howard, listen up: have your fun if you will, but your day of moose fangling will come.
Photo: Moose at Helldiver Pond (photo by John Warren).