A tiding of magpies

The Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), by general agreement, is wicked smart, especially for a bird; its demonstrations of intelligence are legendary. I am not quite sure how “magpie” became a descriptor for humans who flit from topic to topic, unless it has to do with the bird’s tendency to be attracted to Shiny Things, but I’m pretty sure I fit that description, and I have several readers who seem to do likewise. For example, Roger explains how he got that way:

1) As a child, I had the foolish notion that should know all the knowable things in the universe.

2) To that end, I used to read encyclopedias — the Americana as a child — dictionaries, and especially the World Almanac, which I have received for Christmas almost every year since I was nine or ten.

3) Realizing at some point that “all the knowable things in the universe” a) was impossible to know and b) was not interesting to me, I tended to concentrate on things like sports (Willie Mays hit .211 in his last season, with the New York Mets), and American history and politics.

The World Almanac, interestingly, outlived its parent, the New York World newspaper, which merged with the crosstown Evening Telegram in 1931 and absorbed the Sun in 1950, only to be swallowed up in 1966 in a three-way merger that produced the short-lived World Journal Tribune, which died in 1967, aged eight months. (Oddly, the WJT has a surviving relative: New York magazine, which began as the Herald Tribune‘s Sunday supplement, was continued in the WJT, and eventually was salvaged as a monthly.) Of course, the fact that I’d bring this up at all speaks volumes about my own presumed magpiehood.

And just incidentally, while knowing all the knowable things in the universe may not be literally possible, it strikes me as a worthy goal. Beyond that, deponent saith not, what with that whole Tree of Knowledge thing.



  1. Jeffro »

    14 July 2013 · 7:26 pm

    My parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia as well as the complete set of Childcraft How and Why Library.

    I read and reread those books so many times……

  2. McGehee »

    15 July 2013 · 7:27 am

    My folks bought a Collier’s Encyclopedia in 1960, so it was already there when I arrived. I first discovered how out-of-date it was, looking up Richard Nixon and wondering why the President was listed as the Vice President.

  3. Nicole »

    15 July 2013 · 7:16 pm

    I always thought it was the association with shiny things.

    If it’s knowledge, then the husband is definitely a magpie. He can’t remember what day it is, but he can tell you any number of odd bits and pieces of knowledge.

  4. nightfly »

    19 July 2013 · 2:01 pm

    You gotta be careful about the pursuit of knowledge. The original program of Voyager 6, for example: “Learn all that is learnable.”

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