Calling (a) moose

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Headline from the Bangor Daily News (Feb. 13, 2019): "Maine now holds the world record for most people calling a moose at the same time."

Screenshot for posterity:

Update: The headline has been changed to read, "Maine now holds the world record for simultaneous moose-calling."

The body of the article reveals that the moose-calling record did not involve people calling one particular moose:

Last June, when thousands of people flocked to the Skowhegan Fairgrounds for the Maine Moose Festival, many took part in an offbeat attempt to set a world record.

More on that in a minute. First, a question: Did you know there was a world record for the most people calling moose at the same time? The answer: Until now, there wasn’t.

Now, there is.

On Wednesday, organizers of that festival announced that during that record-setting attempt, a total of 1,054 people grunted, wailed and otherwise channeled their inner moose, and that effort has been confirmed by Guinness World Records, according to a press release.

The article refers to the "world record for the most people calling moose at the same time," but for the headline, "calling moose" got changed to "calling a moose." What happened? I think the difficulty lies in the fact that the plural of moose is moose — in other words, moose is a zero plural. "Calling moose" would then be appropriate for the act of calling (plural) moose in general.

But because it's not overtly marked as plural, moose in this context is easily misconstrued as singular. "Calling (singular) moose" isn't quite grammatical, instead bringing to mind Boris and Natasha's endless vendetta against "moose and squirrel" on Rocky and Bullwinkle. In a modern take, New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes imagines Boris and Natasha hovering over a tweeting Donald Trump, with Boris whispering "Tell them is fake news, work of moose and squirrel."

In the Russian-inflected English of Boris Badenov, articles get lost, leading to the anarthrous construction, "moose and squirrel." I'm reminded of a topic that I wrote about for The Atlantic in December, on how Trump's plans for a border wall often get discussed by the president and his administration using wall as a mass noun. So when Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress "We need wall," it led many on Twitter to compare her to stereotypically anarthrous speakers like the Incredible Hulk. And of course there were lots of jokes about how Nielsen's plea was taken straight from Russian, since (as we know from Boris and Natasha) native Russian speakers often leave out articles in L2 English.

So my guess is an editor thought "calling moose" ran the risk of sounding too much like Boris (or the Hulk), and the article "a" was inserted in the headline — making it sound like there was a specific moose being called. Of course, all of this could have been avoided by referring to "moose-calling" instead, since that doesn't rely on a plural form. Indeed, as noted above, the Bangor Daily News  headline was eventually changed to read, "Maine now holds the world record for simultaneous moose-calling," which is a better way to phrase it. And the announcement of the record from the Skowhegan Moose Festival read, "We did it! Guinness World Records has confirmed that Main Street Skowhegan and the Town of Skowhegan set the new world record for the most people moose calling simultaneously!"

Here's what the record-setting moose call sounded like, in case you were wondering. No singular or plural moose attended.

(Hat tip to Jack Lynch, who assiduously monitors all moose-related news.)

Related readings:


  1. Kyle MacDonald said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 11:43 am

    Reminds me of the story of the boy who cried wolf. Didn't these people ever hear about the horde of New Englanders who called moose? When a real moose actually turned up, no one believe them, and they got … not eaten, I guess, but maybe a transient glimpse of nature's beauty?

    Seriously, though, my first thought wasn't Russian, it was phrases like "cry wolf", "cry foul", "call bullshit", etc: phrases that seem like they started as literal quotations ("When the defender tripped the striker, the fans all cried, 'Foul!'"), but now have more general meanings. I read the headline and just assumed that "call moose" was some sort of American hunting term I hadn't heard of.

  2. BZ said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

    Honestly, I don't find any of these alternatives (calling moose, calling a moose, moose-calling) particularly clear. I'm even a bit unsure after reading all this whether they were trying to attract moose by making noises similar to what a moose might make, or just yelling whatever in the direction of moose hoping they notice.

  3. Yuval said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

    I read this as Kyle did.

  4. Timothy Rowe said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

    It's all down to what they call moose. (Though calling them elk doesn't really help.)

  5. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:12 pm

    Was there really a problem to start with? A world record for the most people walking a dog at the same time wouldn't mean that they were all walking the same dog – and might even allow one person to walk two dogs! Is it that 'moose calling' is a set phrase?

  6. David L said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

    If 1,054 people called (a) moose, and no moose came, were any moose actually called?

  7. David Morris said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

    Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. Vocati, moosi non aderit.

  8. Thaomas said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 2:54 pm

    Perhaps each participant was calling only one moose. Why would anyone want more than one moos to turn op when they call? :)

  9. unekdoud said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 3:04 pm

    My first reaction: but meese don't have phones!

  10. Joe said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

    In Soviet Russia, moose call you!

  11. native american speaker said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 3:47 pm

    What is the correct borrowed plural for moose?

    I've been kvetching at people to not use borrowed plurals "unless you can use the proper borrowed plural for 'moose' ", and I'm not sure what that is. I had thought, going by my copy of Roger Smith's "Language of America" (an authoritative volume if ever I read one) that it would be "moosowog"; if moose are in the animate gender; but I was wondering if someone actually knew

  12. David Morris said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 4:55 pm

    Possibly adfuimus. My Latin conjugations are not at their best first thing in the morning.

  13. Y said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 4:55 pm

    "Operator, get me moose!"
    "Line is busy, please hold."

  14. Vance Koven said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 5:59 pm

    @ David L, many are called, but few are chosen.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 6:28 pm

    Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit

    "Called or ["and"] uncalled, the god will be present."

    Since "moose" appears to have been put in a plural form, the verb would be "aderunt" ("they will be present") if that's all you want to change. "Adfuimus" is perfect, specifying that the moose weren't there in the past, but it's also first person, specifying that you are yourself a moose. ;)

    On a different note, like Kyle MacDonald, my reaction to the text was to wonder what "calling a moose" meant, not to be weirded out by potential lack of number agreement.

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

    I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

  17. Viseguy said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

    call a mo
    call a mas
    call a mat
    call a moose
    call a mate
    call a mant

  18. Viseguy said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 8:25 pm

    Actually, should be call a ma moose.

  19. file said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 8:28 pm

    This just in …

    Now, over which wall did Trump declare an emergency?

  20. M.N. said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 8:29 pm

    I'm a bit surprised that the headline contained 'a' at all. Doesn't headlinese usually drop articles (as frequently parodied by the Onion)?

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 14, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    "I'm sorry, the voice mailbox for (click) Moose (click) is full and cannot accept messages."

  22. richardelguru said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 6:33 am

    The sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no moose call….

  23. Rodger C said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 7:45 am

    @native american speaker: I think "moosowog" would be correct, on analogy with Cree muuswa, muuswak (which I picked up a long time ago).

    Call me owl.

  24. John Roth said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 8:36 am

    A moose call horn is a thing, at least according to Google, so calling moose is a fairly obvious statement.

  25. Trogluddite said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 10:56 am

    My first impression was that "calling [a] moose" must be an idiom that I wasn't familiar with. My second was to wonder what the GBR criteria are for the creation of new records of the form; "gathering lots of people and convincing them to simultaneously do something rather silly" (not that I object to a bit of silliness; I'm rather partial to it, in fact.) I can only hope that the organisers had adequate safety protocols in place to cover an inadvertent breaking of the record for the greatest number of moose in a single stampede!

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 11:17 am

    Trogluddite ("gathering lots of people and convincing them to simultaneously do something rather silly") — I assume you had something like dwile flonking in mind.

  27. Belial Issimo said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

    After they were done calling moose, one assumes they went and shot fish in a barrel.

  28. Arthur Baker said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 2:23 pm

    There's some evidence that Donald Trump thinks of "wall" anarthrously, as a commodity, as this New Yorker article relates:

  29. Trogluddite said,

    February 15, 2019 @ 2:58 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Your assumption is indeed correct; that is exactly the kind of silliness that tickles me – the terminology alone is delightful! Quite coincidentally, I'll be supping a few ales tonight with a friend who has family from Bungay and a similar fascination for Britain's glorious and eccentric regional pastimes and vocabulary (from whom I first heard "gazunder") – so thank-you for the conversation opener too!

  30. dainichi said,

    February 18, 2019 @ 4:11 am

    > meese don't have phones

    It's got an [i:]. "Moose" is the no-phone plural :P

  31. Joe said,

    February 18, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

    From the annals of the anarthrous:

  32. S. Norman said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 2:55 pm

    Cow On wall…

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