While reading George MacDonald's "At the Back of the North Wind" this afternoon, I was forced to halt my reading in order that I might satisfy an etymological question raised by the text. At one point, while riding a top a horse led by his father through London, Diamond (the story's main character) sees a "humble-bee."
When presented with such interesting names, my mind instantly goes to work on thinking through the historic, etymolgic, and poetic uses of a word. From the text it was clear that MacDonald had in mind what I would call a bumblebee.
One of my favourite tools on the web right now is Google's Book Ngram Viewer. I have lost hours (many, many hours) to it, and this afternoon was no different. I went in search of the humble bee. I found it, crossing paths with the bumblebee. When did this insect change its name? I'll tell you, and it depends on the literary corpus you examine:
- American English
- British English
The difference between the two is interesting. But as interesting as this particular case is, what is more important to state here is that having access to this tool is beyond incredible. We need to use it more. It's hard to overestimate what a gift such a tool really is.