A Field Guide to Homicidal Waterfowl.
Dear Word Detective: The phrase, “take a gander.” This can’t possibly (I hope) have anything to do with the male of the goosey species, can it? In any case, could you take a look in your reference books and see where “take a gander” came from? My appreciation would flow gratefully. — William Blum.
Hmm. Do I detect a smidgen of anti-goose sentiment in your question? I would have hoped that we, as a species, would have transcended our resentment of geese long ago. True, geese can be vicious, ungrateful and absurdly aggressive, and the bite of a goose can be surprisingly painful, especially considering that it comes from a creature that lacks actual teeth. Come to think of it, geese spend most of their time eating — what? Pond scum? So where do they get off attacking innocent people in the park whose only mistake was in thinking that they were feeding bread to a nice, albeit very large, duck? Anton, bring me my shotgun and a cookbook.
Just kidding. I’m not allowed to play with either shotguns or cookbooks. In any case, I’m afraid your suspicions are justified, and “gander,” meaning anything from “a glance” to “a close look” (“Now I am taking many a gander around the bedroom to see if I can case the box of letters,” Damon Runyon, 1934), does indeed pay tribute to the noble goose. “Gander” in this sense is also a verb, but not as commonly encountered today as the noun.
A “gander” is, of course, a male goose, while a female goose is known simply as “a goose,” and a mixed gaggle of geese is referred to as “geese,” preferably from a distance. The word “goose” itself comes from the Old English word for the bird, “gos,” which in turn is derived from an Indo-European root word (something like “gans”) that was probably intended to imitate the sound a goose makes. The plural form “geese” is, etymologically speaking, the same word as “goose.” The “ee” is simply a phonetic mutation of a sort common at one time in English, which can also be seen in such singular/plural pairs as “tooth/teeth” and “foot/feet.” Our English word “gosling,” meaning a young goose, comes from the Middle English “gos” (goose) plus the diminutive suffix “ling.”
“Gander” as a name for a male goose is a bit of a mystery. It may be simply a mutated form of “goose,” but there is some evidence that it originally meant an entirely different kind of bird, possibly a stork. It may be that the alliterative phrase “goose and gander,” originally meaning two kinds of birds often found near water, eventually resulted in wide misunderstanding of the phrase as meaning “male and female” (as in “buck and doe,” “bull and cow,” etc.), and “gander” came to mean “male goose.”
The use of “gander” to mean “look” comes from the long, flexible neck of the goose (immortalized in the “gooseneck” lamps once common in offices). While female geese no doubt look at things too, it is the gander of a gaggle that plays sentinel, craning his neck to examine any intruder or possible danger. “Gander” in this “peer at” sense first appeared in print in 1887, as a verb. Interestingly, up until that time, “gander” as a slang verb had meant “to wander aimlessly,” and as a slang noun had meant “a stupid person.”
Incidentally, I used the verb “craning” in my explanation of “gander,” a verb also meaning “to stretch one’s neck in order to see something.” “Crane” in this sense comes from the “crane,” a large bird similar to a stork and probably much nicer than a goose. And “gaggle” for a group of geese arose in the 15th century as an imitation of the sound of many geese (probably massing for an attack).