An inordinate fondness for beetles

October 4, 2012 • 3:12 am

by Matthew Cobb

I spotted this drawing on Michael Bok’s Arthropoda blog. It shows Charlie Darwin riding a beetle, and a reproduction is currently on display at Down House (the original is held by Cambridge University Library).

Michael writes: “It was drawn by Darwin’s friend and classmate at Cambridge, Albert Way, in 1832. I think the drawing quite nicely speaks to Darwin’s enthusiasm for natural history, and especially beetle collecting, well before his historic voyage and academic achievements later in life.” The milestone appears to read ‘To Cambridge’.

Any coleopterophiles out there like to hazard a family-level ID?

The full page (marked by an annoying library stamp) includes another drawing of ‘Darwin on his hobby’ (a ‘hobby’ was both a pass-time and a “small or middle-sized horse; an ambling or pacing horse; a pony” (says the OED)). (In fact, hobby’ as a pass-time may be a later coinage – the online OED is unclear on this, and my OED is at home. Can any WEIT readers help?)

29 thoughts on “An inordinate fondness for beetles

  1. Sorry on behalf of all librarians for the stamp!
    The sense comes via the name for a horse (hence also dobbin as a horse nickname) to a hobby-horse pastime (a hobby horse was an early bike).

    Useages as follows (OED Online):
    1816 Scott Antiquary I. xi. 248, I quarrel with no man’s hobby.
    1823 Scott Peveril I. ix. 231 The pleasure of being allowed to ride one’s hobby in peace and quiet.
    1857 T. Hughes Tom Brown’s School Days ii. ii. 270 He’s on one of his pet hobbies.
    1874 A. H. Sayce Princ. Compar. Philol. viii. 312 Transgress the boundaries of scientific evidence, and incur the charge of riding a hobby too hard.
    1880 L. Stephen Alexander Pope vi. 139 His [Lord Oxford’s] famous library was one of his special hobbies.

    1. PS Matthew, I bet you have the OED Online via the Manchester Uni databases… I use it often – a fabulous resource.

  2. I just remembered a hawk link – the table football game Subbuteo got its name from the latin name for the Hobby, Falco subbuteo, because the inventor could not get Hobby as a trademark name for the game.

    1. In a similar case, Audi for the car marque arose as the Latin translation of Horch, the founder’s name. (This is related to “hark” as “in hark the herald angels sing”. The word is a bit old-fashioned and thus unfamiliar in English; many children probably thought that Hark was the name of the herald angel, just like Pontius was a pilot (wasn’t he involved in the flight to Egypt?).)

      1. Interesting, I never knew Horch and Audi were related in etymology.

        But I’m sure you know that Volvo is Latin for I roll.

        1. If I recall correctly, Volvo got started (sorry!) as manufacturers of bearings, roller bearings in particular. Then they got involved in making things to put bearings into – cars and engines (they’re big fish in the pond of marine engines).

      2. I always thought it stood for Auto Union Deutsche Industrie. (Apologies if I got the cases wrong.) I could be wrong though, I am relying on my memory rather than Wikipedia.

        1. Audi certainly arose as a translation of Horch. (Horch had been forced out of the company he founded, which retained the name, so he had to have a new name for the new company.) Whether or not Auto Union Deutsche Industrie was also in someone’s mind I don’t know. It sounds a bit stilted and is probably a backronym. (Fiat means “Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino” but I’m sure the Latin “fiat”, “let it be done”, as in “fiat lux”, “let there be light”, was noticed at the time the name was invented.) Audi at one time comprised four marques (hence the four rings), one of which was Auto Union, which might lend some credence to the tale, but it would be strange to emphasize one of the marques like this.

          Most marques are named after the founder of the company. Mercedes (a common name—corresponding to “Grace”—in Spanish-speaking countries, but rare (even back then) in German-speaking countries) was the daughter of one of the board members of what was then the Daimler company.

  3. OK, first a horse, then the meaning of pastime. There is also hobby-horse, which I think of as a toy horse for children.

    Interestingly, the German word for hobby in the sense of pastime is Steckenpferd, which contains the word “Pferd”, horse. According to the Wiktionary entry for Steckenpferd, the shift in meaning in German was influenced by that in English. (The English used to be much more aware of German and I think even in Darwin’s time it was not uncommon for educated people, perhaps even Darwin, to know some German.) The Wiktionary entry contains a picture of a stick horse, which is what the German word literally means.

    1. IIRC Darwin’s German wasn’t particularly good and his wife did some of the translating of his German correspondence (she also knew French and Italian and had traveled extensively in France, Italy, and Switzerland before her marriage). A bit of searching seems to indicate the children’s German governess, Camilla Ludvig, was also used (possibly for more scientific writings than Emma could handle).

      1. Stephen J Gould says in one of his essays that Darwin’s German was not very good. And this may have led to the biggest missed opportunity of Darwin’s life, because he had a copy of Mendel’s work on his shelves and never read it. (The pages were uncut.) Had he read about Mendel’s experiments with pea breeding, surely he would have spotted the significance of them immediately.

        1. Not quite true – see David Galton’s 2009 article –
          “Darwin had a further chance to read about Mendel’s work in 1881. A student of his, George Romanes, was preparing an article for the Encyclopedia Britannica on plant hybridization. He enlisted Darwin’s help to suggest names of eminent botanists who should be included. Darwin replied by sending Romanes a copy of a recently received book by Wilhelm Focke on the topic, published in 1881. Mendel’s work was summarized on three pages (108–111) and the section ended stating that: ‘Mendel thought he had found constant numerical relationships between the different types of crosses’. But these pages were uncut in Darwin’s copy and Romanes left them so. Mendel’s name was included by Romanes in his article for the Encyclopedia, but he never read what Mendel had done.”

  4. The print OED notes that this usage of “hobby” was formerly “hobby-horse”, sense 6 – “a favorite pursuit or pastime”. The earliest citation is Hale, 1676, “Almost every person hath some hobby horse or other wherein he prides himself.” Contempl., 1, 202. The last citation given is Darwin himself in 1867, “I shall not make so much of my hobby-horse as I thought I could.” Life & Lett. (1887), III, 134.

    The second part of the print OED’s definition of this sense of hobby is “;…an individual pursuit to which a person is devoted (in the speaker’s opinion)out of proportion to its real importance.” It appears that Albert Way was using the word in this sense and that therefore his use of “hobby” was simply a shortening of “hobby-horse”.

    1. Sterne uses it a great deal in that second sense in Tristram Shandy, concerning Uncle Toby’s obsession with fortifications

      1. Given the relative size to Darwin, I guess no one would call that “the lesser of two weevils.” (Like the joke the captain plays on his Darwinish ship’s surgeon in Master & Coomander.)

  5. Darwin LETTER to Leonard Jenyns 1846:-

    “… & I must tell you what happened to me on the banks of the Cam in my early entomological days; under a piece of bark I found two carabi (I forget which) & caught one in each hand, when lo & behold I saw a sacred Panagæus crux major; I could not bear to give up either of my Carabi, & to lose Panagæus was out of the question, so that in despair I gently seized one of the carabi between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost both Carabi & Panagæus!”

    Inordinate fondness? I’ll say

    Not sure how it ranks alongside Coyne’s steak-strapped-to-head exploit however

  6. About the drawing by Albert Way, can 1832 really be the correct year? In 1832 Charles Darwin was already voyaging on board of HMS Beagle. Albert Way was a fellow student and beetling companion in Cambridge – so is not 1831 or an earlier year more plausible?

  7. Very minor quibble: you might want to have a look in the dictionary for ‘pass-time’ as well: you’ll find it should be ‘pastime’.

  8. Just a comment about the stamp as a librarian, while it may be in an atrocious place, putting stamps in awkward places is seen as rather critical to protecting the item from theft and damage. The Guttenburg Bible, held in Cambridge, has a similar problem with multiple stamps but having this mark dissuades those more criminalistic of individuals from taking to the book with a scalpel and then selling the removed pages on the black rare book market. It happens often and will always happen, so this is one (albeit not very aesthetically pleasing) way of stopping such a practice.

    As for hobby, I always interpreted that as Darwin’s hobby of bug collecting but then maybe I’m placing a modern interpretation on an older word. Interesting to read the possible alternatives!

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