[ ECOLOGICAL ETYMOLOGIST ]
Dear E.E. The other day a friend and I were
talking about words that come from the
names of politicians, and she said that Aaron Burr
was so persistently cantankerous that we
named burs after him. Is this true?
I’d bet good money that rumor was started
by Alexander Hamilton, who was at odds with
Burr throughout his career. (He once called Burr
“bankrupt beyond redemption.”) Why the animosity?
Maybe it started when they were New York lawyers
on opposite sides of the courtroom. Or when Burr
beat Hamilton’s father-in-law out of a seat in the New
York senate. Or maybe it was when they started the
Manhattan Company together, a business that was
supposed to save New York City from chronic yellow
fever by developing a municipal water system, but
Burr took the start-up money and opened a bank
instead (and gave himself a generous loan). Hamilton
must have felt like he just couldn’t shake him off.
Burr was so stubbornly prickly that he kept
the feud alive until 1804, when he famously
challenged Hamilton to a duel – and killed him. And like
a bur shaken from your pantleg only to become lodged
on your sock, he soon threw himself into new mischief.
Burr went back to Washington and might have stayed
there, except that Thomas Jefferson found him so
troublesome he refused to let him run for a second
term as vice president. So Burr went west, befriended
a disgruntled general, and by 1806 was conspiring
to take part of the Louisiana Territory to start a new
country. (Burr, of course, would be emperor.) By 1807
he was on trial for treason and fled to Europe.
So you can see where burs and Burr have
similarities, but unfortunately, there’s no truth to the
etymological rumor. Bur is a very old word, which
shows up in Danish as borre and in French as bourre.
No one knows its origin, but it has always meant
bristle, or bristly seed pod. By Shakespeare’s time,
though, burre had become an insult for a troublemaker
who would not go away, which makes
you wonder what Burr’s ancestors
were like, and if that’s how the Burr
family got its name.
Above: Fresh venison. Be sure the meat on the bottom is suspended to allow for good air flow.
Below: Week-old venison. Note burgundy crust. The ham will go back in the fridge for two more
weeks and the loins will be broken down and frozen.