Wild City // Thoughts on a word

The past couple of days I have been walking around thinking about the word, “crestfallen.” This sort of thing is a hazard of my profession. I came across the word in a newspaper article about the intercepted puppy that had been put in a sealed box and left at the Post Office. The word stayed with me in part because it is snazzy. You don’t usually see it in the newspaper.

The woman who owned the dog had intended to mail it down south to her son, but it would have frozen to death in the airplane’s hold. She is in trouble for endangering the animal, and has forfeited it. Many people came forward wanting to adopt, so the officials had a drawing to pick a new owner.

When the hopefuls gathered at the pound recently, a young girl was allowed to play with the now famous little curly-haired, black dog, whose name is either a noun or a command: Guess. It seems a peculiarly apt name for a dog that, very early in its life, nearly came to a bad end.

Maybe the name was the owner’s sweet joke. When you asked what her dog’s name was, she would reply, “Guess.” And you would reply, “Blackie?”

“No, no,” she would say. “Guess.” And so on.

It reminds me of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine. When one man asks the other, the team manager, the name of his first baseman, he says, “Who.” To which the man replies, “Your first baseman.” And so on.

Back at the pound, the young girl who was allowed to play with the puppy before the drawing had a wonderful name herself, Savanna Jo. She didn’t get the dog, though. According to the newspaper article, the girl left “crestfallen.”

When I read that sentence, I felt her disappointment. That a word, simple black marks on a page, can stir the heart seems to me like a miracle.

And I like the way “crestfallen” sounds. The initial “cr” is a little harsh, like a small dog growling, but the “est” is soft and soothing, like the “ess” in “Guess.” And “fallen,” if you hear the sound, but not the meaning, is friendly, gentle, like hard things that happen to bridges and cradles, set to soothing music, in children’s songs.

I am interested in how words can help bring our attention back to the natural world. Savanna’s lovely name, of course, means grassland. For the first time, when I read that newspaper article about the dog, I realized that “crestfallen” probably referred to a bird’s crest. Sure enough, in addition to “dejected,” “dispirited,” and “depressed,” my dictionary lists for “crestfallen” this meaning: “with drooping crest.”

The Northern cardinal is the crested bird I see most often, as it is common in backyards. In my sources I see two different explanations for the origins of the bird’s name. One is that it comes from the Latin word, cardinalis, which means, “important.” The other is that it was named for the church figure, the one who wears a red, pointed hat and red robe.

Both male and female cardinals have a crest. Late last summer I saw a male in our backyard during the molt. He’d lost feathers from his crest, and he certainly looked less jaunty than he had earlier in the season.

Cardinals mate for life, and they live just outside the houses wherein we attempt to mate for life. I like the correspondence there between the inner and the outer.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, cardinals originally lived in the southeastern part of the United States. The bird’s range expanded northward only in the last 100 years or so.

I read on that same website that in the 1800s cardinals were trapped by the thousands down south and sent to northern markets. They were prized for their bright colors and their song, and were kept inside, as caged birds. I can’t help but think how loud that cardinal whistle is, and how piercing it would sound if the bird were in the next room.

In case you don’t find that prospect daunting, I should quickly add that it is now illegal to capture and keep this bird indoors. If you want to do something nice for a cardinal, plant native shrubs in your yard instead.

The captive cardinals were sent northward, traveling roughly the same route that the little dog Guess would have traveled, but in the reverse direction. These wild birds that mate for life, that actually sing duets, seem like poor candidates for captivity. The unlucky ones who were snatched, shipped up without their mate, and then kept in a cage, indeed, must have been crestfallen.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.