Thursday, 9 March 2017

T.A. Coward and the origins of ‘jizz’?

You know that moment when you bump into something which you thought only you had the vaguest interest in, and suddenly it all makes just a little bit more sense?  Well, that moment…

I was looking through some of our Local Studies collection relating to Birding and Ornithology when I fell upon a book by the Cheshire Naturalist T.A. Coward entitled Bird Haunts and Nature Memories (Reference 200289) from 1922. This is a handsome volume published by Frederick Warne, a collection of sometimes revised articles, many of which we are told originally appeared in the Manchester Guardian, Scotsman, Daily Despatch and Westminster Review.  Sadly which pieces appeared in which publication, and when, is not disclosed.  Many, but not all, of the articles have local interest and are focussed on Cheshire (or what was Cheshire) and the Wirral, with others relating to the North Wales Coastline.  I was initially fascinated by a lovely chapter on A Cheshire Bird (the Great Crested Grebe) as well as the rather poetic Memories of a Cheshire Moor which relates to Carrington Moss and proceeds from 1884 through 1894, 1904, 1914, ending in 1921, finishing with the somewhat unsettling sentence “Perhaps Carrington Moss was a better place forty years ago.” 

There’s also a fantastic piece (with photographs) entitled An Old Cheshire Wild-Fowler which describes the life of such an individual on the frozen Dee marshes near Sealand.  Much of this writing is very much of a different time.  In this article, Coward (a lifelong Ornithologist) resolutely defends the ‘sport’ (as he sees it) of Wildfowling.  The article even describes (in passing) the hunting of Spoonbills, which recent visitors to RSPB Burton Mere and elsewhere wouldn’t be very happy about
in 2017, I’m sure.

Anyway, we must eventually proceed to the real subject of this blog.  As a (very bad) birder with an ability to easily forget the name of something I had pointed out to me only the day before, I’ve always been interested in the birding concept of ‘jizz’.  This is a term much used on “Introduction to Birding” type courses, and in many identification books.  I’ve always understood it to mean that comprehension of the identity of a bird without having fully captured it in clear sight.  An example might be that you’re digging at the allotment and ‘sense’ a little bird hopping around waiting for you to disturb a worm.  Somehow you ‘know’ without looking at it that it’s a Robin.  That ‘knowing’ – in effect being aware of the little bird’s ‘Robin-ness’ is its ‘jizz’.  You don’t have to clearly see it to know it’s a Robin. In the early 90s (around the time Rob Hume’s Birds by Character – a Field Guide to Jizz Identification was published) I remember asking a (much better and far more knowledgeable) birding friend where the term came from (the book, which is actually really good, is very vague in defining the term’s history).  There followed lots of shrugging of shoulders and mumbling.  Nobody seemed to know.  As I went online in the mid 90s I remember looking on various forums.  The general consensus then seemed to be that it might have something to do with GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) which is a term in use by aeroplane spotters and dates back to at least WWII.  Others argued (less convincingly to me, anyway) that it was a corruption of gestalt, a German word which roughly translates as ‘form and shape’.

Imagine my surprise and delight then when I open up this wonderful book in our Local Studies collection to find on pages 141-144 a chapter entitled ‘Jizz’.  As I read it, it clearly defines the concept, if not the origin (which Coward states only as coming from ‘A West Coast Irishman’), of the birding term: “That mental picture recorded through the eye is accurate in proportion to our familiarity with the species; the more familiar we are the less we note except the jizz.  The passing curlew may have a long curved bill, a pale lower back, a strong distinctive flight; we knew these characters were present, but we did not actually see them; we saw a curlew.  Curlew flashed into the brain without pause for mental analysis, for we noted the jizz.”  Ignoring the fact that the origin of the word is so uncorroborated (and there is little evidence from anywhere I can see that this is indeed an Irish word) these four pages provide the perfect definition of the term as it is used today proving that the word has been around for much longer than previously thought.  As I rush to the computer to announce my findings to a no doubt expectant world, it becomes apparent that I’m not the first to realise this.  Coward’s book was not a massive seller, but he was a well-known Ornithologist and Naturalist of the time, and some of his titles did sell in high numbers, although I’m unaware if he used the term in any of these other books. But others have seen this title and found this chapter.  The earliest written reference I can find to Coward’s use of the term is in David McDonald’s The Etymology of Jizz (published in Canberra Bird Notes Vol 21 No.1 1996).  The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry to reflect it.  Both, I think, very much underplay the way in which Coward exactly defines how the word is used today. 

As for my interest in the term, I’m not really sure if this marks the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.  Perhaps I’ll just forget all about it for another twenty years or so.  Maybe if I could just find the original newspaper publication (if indeed there was one)…
And, finally, if you do have an interest in Ornithology, do please have a look at our catalogue and see what you can spot.  As well as our varied Local Studies collection of published material, we also have some fascinating Archive items that might interest.  One of my favourites is D4643/1 which is a notebook belonging to an Arthur Lewis of 28 Arkles Lane, Liverpool (literally just around the corner from Anfield, on the edge of Stanley Park).  This is a fascinating nature notebook from the first decade of the Twentieth Century in which young Arthur records his birding finds both in Liverpool and out on jaunts to the Wirral, and into both Cheshire and Wales.  This is the kind of thing he recorded:

According to a note in the front of the book, Arthur later lived (and died) in Watergate Street, Chester.