The Grammarphobia Blog

Canada (or Canadian?) geese

Q: Why are they Canada geese, not Canadian geese? After all, we have Canadian bacon and Canadian whisky.

A: Some English speakers do indeed refer to this large waterbird as a “Canadian goose,” but a majority prefer “Canada goose” as the common name for Branta canadensis, according to online searches.

The four standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, reflecting popular usage, list “Canada goose” as the common name for the North American bird, though two of them include “Canadian goose” as a variant usage.

Birders and ornithologists generally accept the popular usage when referring to the goose by its English name. The website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example, refers to the bird as “Canada goose” and describes it this way:

“A familiar and widespread goose with a black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan to cream breast and brown back.”

The National Audubon Society also refers to the bird online as “Canada goose,” and notes, “This big ‘Honker’ is among our best-known waterfowl.”

In 1758, the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus included the Canada goose in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, which classified animals, plants, and minerals.

But Linnaeus, writing in Latin, didn’t use the term “Canada goose” in the 10th edition. He referred to the bird as Anas canadensis, a protonym, or early version, of the now-accepted scientific name, Branta canadensis, or “black goose of Canada.”

(Linnaeus used Anas, classical Latin for duck, as the genus for ducks, geese, and swans. Branta, now the genus for black geese, is of unknown origin but may be related to old Germanic names for similarly colored waterbirds.)

The earliest reference to the bird in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1772 citation from Hudson’s Bay Birds, by Johann Reinhold Forster: “The Canada geese are very plentiful at Hudson’s Bay.”

The OED has only one other citation for the usage, from the Penny Cyclopaedia (1838): “The Canada Goose generally builds its nest on the ground.”

The dictionary, which has no citation for “Canadian” goose or geese, notes that the noun “Canada” is used attributively—that is, adjectivally—“in the names of various commercial products, animals, and plants.”

In addition to “Canada goose,” the OED cites “Canada jay,” “Canada potato” (Jerusalem artichoke), “Canada rice” (an aquatic grass), “Canada thistle,” “Canada violet,” and others.

In the 19th century, writers used the attributive noun (“Canada”) as well as the adjective (“Canadian”) in referring to the goose.

For example, Meriwether Lewis, in a May 15, 1805, journal entry during his expedition with William Clark, uses the adjective in reporting “a small species of geese which differ considerably from the common canadian goose.”

And The American Universal Geography (1812), in listing birds of the United States, says, “The Canadian goose (Anser canadensis) is a bird of passage, and gregarious.”

In The Birds of America (1827-39), John James Audubon uses the attributive noun: “The Canada Geese are fond of returning regularly to the place which they have chosen for resting in, and this they continue to do until they find themselves greatly molested while there.”

And in Ornithological Biography (1835), Audubon describes a “curious mode of shooting the Canada Goose I have practised with much success.”

Audubon says he sinks a hogshead in the sand, covers himself with brushwood, “and in this concealment I have killed several at a shot; but the stratagem answers for only a few nights in the season.”

We’ve come across several theories about why English speakers generally prefer the term “Canada goose” to “Canadian goose.”

The silliest one is that John Canada—described variously as an ornithologist, a taxonomist, or a taxidermist—named the bird for himself. We haven’t found a shred of evidence to confirm this or that such a person even existed.

Another theory is that English speakers use the attributive noun “Canada” for the goose because canadensis  in the scientific Latin name means “of Canada.”

But the ornithologist and zoologist Richard C. Banks, quoted on snopes.com, has said “the English name of a species is not directly related to the scientific name or its ending.”

Banks says the common names of birds probably develop simply because the people who use them prefer them to the alternatives.

In his book Obsolete English Names of North American Birds and Their Modern Equivalents (1988), Banks notes that the Canada goose has had many other names, including “tundra goose,” “common wild goose,” and “ring-neck goose.”

Pat Schwieterman, a contributor to the Language Log, notes that the adjectival form is typically used when the names of countries modify nouns, while the attributive form is generally used when the names of states or provinces modify nouns.

He cites such avian adjectival examples as the American crow, the Cuban parakeet, and the Jamaican lizard cuckoo, along with attributive examples like the California condor, the Arizona woodpecker, and the Louisiana waterthrush.

We can cite many other examples, notably the American robin, as well as many exceptions, including the subject of today’s post: the Canada goose.

Finally, Laura Erickson, who writes and broadcasts about birds, says on the mailing list of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union that the Canada goose “gets its name from its breeding range.”

“It is of course perfectly acceptable and correct to call one a ‘Canadian goose’ if you see its passport or some other verification of its citizenship,” she adds.

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