Wild West Words: Owl, Stoked, Dude and Wolverine

Barred Owl
Barred Owl


There’s an idea about human language origin called the bow-wow theory. It posits that human beings acquired language by imitating the animals in their world. Though there’s no way to prove this notion, it nevertheless compels us to consider animal onomatopoeias. In English, we have bow-wow, oink, meow, whinny or neigh. The same animals in Japan say wan-wan, buh-buh, nyaw-nyaw, and hihiin

This imitative impulse is taken a step further when we name species after their sounds. The cuckoo, bobwhite, and whippoorwill are birds that say their own names. So do our Montana residents the killdeer, chickadee, and curlew. 

And while these birds sleep through the darkness, the many owls of the land are proclaiming their common name. Owl derives from ule, an Old English imitation of the bird’s cry. The German term for the bird is Eula; the French say hibou, and in the Hindi language it’s ulloo.

The great horned owl, whose deep hoots pierce Montana winter nights, is common throughout the Americas. Its scientific classification is Bubo virginianus, a name formalized in 1788. Many owls around the world belong to the genus Bubo, most likely a Latin-based imitation of their call. The species name virginianus, not imitative at all, refers to the commonwealth of Virginia, established in 1776, whose name was once emblematic of all things native to the New World. 

Stoked, Dude!

The adjective stoked, meaning “excited,” has played a serviceable role in American youth slang for at least four decades now. Pacific Ocean surfers put this word to imaginative use in the 1960s to express delirious enthusiasm for their sport. American linguist Ben Zimmer traced the word’s printed debut to a 1963 Hawaii magazine called Paradise of the Pacific which offered an article entitled, “The Oceanlands are Stoked Over Wet Rock-and-Roll. Cowabunga!”

This spirited usage is thoroughly American, but its parent is the Dutch verb stoken meaning “to stir and feed a fire.” In the 1600s, it came to English as stoke. Anyone who has tended a fireplace or woodstove has stoked the fire

Surfer dude

In the mid-1800s, the word took on a new meaning: to stuff food into the mouth as if shoveling wood into a furnace. A quotation from an 1894 London periodical reads, “He…‘stokes’ his meal, till the veins in his forehead swell.”

Then in the 1960s, California athletes put a surfer’s spin on the term, figuratively stoking themselves with the thrill and fire of their sport. Over the decades, skateboarders and skiers from Marin to Montana to Massachussetts have appropriated stoked, helping the word find its way into the mainstream of American slang.


To taxonomists, he’s Gulo gulo, the double-glutton, the gluttonous glutton. To the rest of us, he’s the wolverine, the legendary ferocious predator of the northern hemisphere’s sub-alpine regions. Wolverines live in Montana, but only the most dedicated devotees will spot the solitary and elusive creature in the wild. 

The size of a large dog but shaped like a small bear, wolverines belong to the family Mustelidae (from the Latin word for “weasel”), and are related to weasels, skunks, badgers and otters. Vermont fur trader and diarist Daniel Harmon wrote in 1820, “The…wolverine, in shape and the color of the hair, greatly resembles the skunk.” 

Wolverine Loping
Wolverine Loping

Wolverines are skunkley in another way as well. They stink. Their anal glands are equipped with such polysyllabic chemical compounds as methylbutanoic acid (think smelly cheese), methyldecanoic acid and phenylacetic acid, with which they mark territory and food.

The food they mark consists of mainly carrion during the winter months, but their menu also includes seasonally available insects, berries, roots and bird eggs. The wolverine's appetite can compel the animal to depredate a compromised game animal many times its size. With powerful jaws and teeth the wolverine tears flesh from bone and crushes bone to bits. What’s left of the carcass is defended to the death from other scavengers if it comes to that.

The bold, audacious, malodorous mustelid has been called many names. At first citation in an English document dated 1574, it was woolvering. By 1619, the now-standard spelling wolverine (“one who behaves like a wolf”) appeared. Historical accounts of the animal include the term quick-hatch, the anglicization of its Cree name, and carcajou as the Canadian-French interpretation of its Algonquin title. The wolverine’s reputation as a furry gormandizer inspired Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus to give it the Latin species name Gulo gulo, “double glutton,” in 1758.


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