The journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have been a treasure trove of natural history in early America, and they have become equal parts map, nature diary and scientific study. The two explorers recorded every object and beast they encountered on their trek across the Louisiana Territory and the West in 1804.
At President Thomas Jefferson’s behest, they were expected to track everything worth noticing and not commonly known. That turned out to be a lot. They encountered new plants, animals, landscape features and cultural artifacts, prompting them to invent new terms to describe their findings based on descriptions, surroundings, or French and Native American names.
Atlas Obscura reports that, “According to Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, a 1940 study by Elijah Criswell, more than one thousand words appeared in print for the first time in Lewis and Clark’s journals. Many eventually entered the permanent American English vocabulary”
“A mountain ram with unusually large, twisted horns was named bighorn. Other animals they noticed include tumble-bug (dung beetle), tiger cat (lynx), and leather-wing bat. Plants that received similar treatment include the red elm and the snowberry (‘a globular berry … as white as wax’).”
“Lewis and Clark based some terms on where they found a plant or an animal—sand-hill crane, Osage apple, and various denizens of the prairie, such as prairie lark, prairie hen, prairie wolf (coyote), and prairie dog,” noted Atlas Obscura.
Things we take for granted today are part of our conversation because the two explorers braved a journey that few would take and became the fathers of a whole new vocabulary for describing our world and the beasts that populate it.