Do You Beaver?

After two and a half months blogging, I am approaching the all-important 40th post. Today’s is number 39. My nose has been so close to the grindstone, however, that I’ve barely noticed. I’ve got new projects to complete, old bills to write, a daily blog to keep up…in short, I’ve been beavering away.

Have you heard beaver used in this way before? It was new to me when I first heard it at Cambridge.

I’ll let Simon J. James give another example:

One morning last week, I was sitting at my desk, beavering away (building a small dam out of gnawed down pencils)

I found Simon through my BlogRush widget near the bottom of this blog and his extended metaphor was just too adorable to leave out. I also have a sneaking suspicion he’s British, for the following reasons:

  • he spells it self aggrandisement and standardise
  • he reports a colleague’s utterance of “whilst” in a telephone conversation
  • he uses single quotes to explain in an extended riff why his colleague’s use of ‘bye now’ in said conversation was rude

‘Bye now’ suggests immediacy to me, a flagrant disregard for all others in the conversation; it’s the verbal equivalent of hanging up. And also you can’t say, ‘bye earlier’ can you really?

So London Simon (I checked) uses “beavering away.” But what about my U.S. and Canadian readers? Have you used this expression before, or would you call yourself as busy as a bee, instead?

Here’s another explanation from a UK website:

The beaver is remarkable for its industry (and skill) in constructing its habitation and creating dams to preserve its water supply. This gave rise to the verb beaver away for someone who works very hard and to the faintly derogatory eager beaver for a person who is keen to succeed.

The expression is certainly evocative. I wouldn’t dare use it around my American friends, but Simon’s usage is guileless, down to the cute little pencil dam image—or perhaps he’s done that to avoid confusion with that other meaning for beaver:

OK, stop tittering. In British English, to beaver away is to work busily. However, these days you’d have difficulty saying it without a chorus of sniggers from the peanut gallery, as we also all know the American definition. It’s the sort of thing your grandmother might say at Christmas dinner that would make the younger generations choke on their soup.

That one’s from the English-to-American Dictionary. And though apple-pie M-W does define beaver as a verb (dating back to 1946), I think this is one expression best left to the British.

16 Comments »

  • skg046 said:  
    (On 11 April 2008 at 2:40 PM)

    I’ve certainly heard and read “to beaver away,” but I’d consider it UK usage. A teacher once called a much younger me an eager beaver—1980, maybe.

  • Robin said:  
    (On 11 April 2008 at 5:16 PM)

    I hadn’t heard quite that expression– we Americans might refer to an industrious person as “busy as a beaver” instead. Of course, it doesn’t feature the noun as a verb, but I don’t think anyone would snigger.

  • Casey said:  
    (On 12 April 2008 at 4:54 AM)

    @skg046, does “eager beaver” sound archaic to you now?

    @Robin, I agree with you: I think the noun form exists in US English, but not the verb. To me, the verb somehow seems…racier. What’s your take?

  • Simon J. James said:  
    (On 13 April 2008 at 2:44 PM)

    Thanks ever do much, you lovely Americans. Especially you Casey for noticing my little corner of the interweb.

    I was aware of the sniggersome value of the beaver but decided to go ahead and use it anyway, I guess you could say it’s comedy on many levels!

    Have a lovely day in good old America, I’ll see you all (maybe) in July when I’m in New York!

  • skg046 said:  
    (On 18 April 2008 at 1:38 PM)

    Not really. OTOH, 30 years isn’t enough time for something to feel archaic, for me, because my feels-archaic meter is calibrated in centuries.

    If you have a feed for comments, I can’t find it. (All comments, not only the ones for a particular post—I do see the link just above this section.)

  • Casey said:  
    (On 22 April 2008 at 2:56 AM)

    OTOH? That one I haven’t heard before. What does that stand for?

    I’ll check into making a feed for comments.

  • skg046 said:  
    (On 23 April 2008 at 7:20 PM)

    Re: comment feed, thanks!

    OTOH = on the other hand
    FWIW = for what it’s worth
    IOW = in other words
    FIAWOL = fandom is a way of life
    IANAL = I am not a lawyer (inevitably followed by the word “but”)

    In conclusion, as longtime posters to Usenet groups said, back in the day: HTH. HAND.

    (hope this helps; have a nice day)

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