The twins and their older brother came to visit and were playing their favorite new game, "hide the goose." The goose? a two foot tall hollow plastic replica perhaps originally a lawn ornament, now an excellent child's toy. Easy to find. After the hiding game had gone on long enough, and was just starting to become a trifle rambunctious, I tried to signal to my fellow student of Italian that the time had come for the goose to retire for the day -- but try as I might, I couldn't come up with a translation for the word goose. Later, after the lads had left, I looked in the Italian dictionary for "goose." Oca, it said. A strange, unanticipated word.
I tried to recall the Latin word for goose. Nothing. But after several hours (and here comes the point of the story) a word suddenly floated to the surface -- anser. Let me tell you now, fans of Dr. Metablog, that I was exceedingly proud of myself. Fifty-five years or so after my last course in Latin, out popped anser. Self-celebration knew no bounds.
After I had stopped crowing about my triumph, I started to marvel at the brain -- not just my brain, but any brain. In what corner of the brain, in what concatenation of synapses, had the word anser been lurking lo these many decades. And what sort of ingenious search program needed only a few hours to ferret it out? Glaciers have melted, rivers have changed their course, and yet anser remained unchanged, permanently embedded somewhere in my brain. It's kind of miraculous, isn't it?
So how did Italian acquire oca rather than a word descended from anser. Why not *asse, for example. My dictionary of classical Latin offers no alternative to anser, but the Italian etymological dictionary explains that the late Latin word for goose was auca, derived from a diminutive aucellus of avis (bird) and it cites as cognates old French oue and Occitan auca. No doubt demotic auca replaced the "book word" anser sometime in late antiquity.
The result of this investigation: next time, I will be able to say, with great authority, "nascondi l'oca."