To understand this story, it helps to know that my father was a very observant Christian. He always watched his language, and he demanded that his children do the same. He would call us down for saying “gosh darn,” telling us that substituting words for an obscenity or blasphemy amounted to using the original.
That fact seems irrelevant to my story, but stay with me.
When I was about 12, we were outside together when Dad pointed to a heron flying over and remarked off-handedly, “Oh, look, there goes a shite-poke.”
We didn’t live near any large bodies of water, so a heron was an unusual sight. And I didn’t recognize the word.
“A what?” I asked.
“A heron,” he said, and that was the end of the conversation.
I didn’t think too much more about the word until years later, when I was studying English in graduate school. We were talking about regional words in a seminar one day, and “shite-poke” suddenly jumped into memory.
I tried to look it up, but I had no idea about how to spell it. I found nothing in any of the dictionaries I consulted. Oddly, my professor and the other students didn’t recognize the word either.
Eventually I decided it must be a word carried by our German-speaking ancestors from Europe. I tried looking in several German-English dictionaries, but still drew a blank.
I came back to the word a few times over the years, but never found any answers. I stuck with the idea it was a German word, especially when my Uncle Marion, a Baptist minister, repeated the word after my father had died. I asked him if he knew the origin, and he said he didn’t. It was just the family’s word for a heron.
A few months ago, it occurred to me to try to find the word on the Internet. I still wasn’t sure how to spell the word, but I started with Babelfish, a site that translates words between a number of languages. Selecting German to English, I tried several possible spellings. Nothing.
Finally, I tried Google. Up popped a nature writer’s blog on a green heron, including a photo of a specimen in the process of unloading a large deposit of, shall we say, nature’s fertilizer. She commented that the photo was particularly appropriate because a common name for the bird is shite-poke, which is an old-fashioned way of saying “bag [poke] of excrement.”
No German there. Just some good, old fashioned, earthy American English. Apparently our ancestors named the bird based on what they observed.