Sagehen — who knew? A Story Safari

I discovered a new word the other day, in something one of my writers posted: sagehen. SA-geh-hen? Nope, SAGE-hen. Clearly I was on the trail of a Story Safari.

Writer Anne Lamott, in her invaluable book Bird by Bird, talks about carrying index cards wherever she goes. Folded lengthwise and stuck in her back pocket, if you really need to know. My stay-at-home version of that is browser tabs.

Story safari

Today we’re taking a journey into the tab that begins “The History,” wherein you will find the story of Cecil the Sagehen.

The first mention of a sage hen in connection with Pomona athletics occurred in the student newspaper about 100 years ago:

“The Sage Hen will fight — on the field. On the campus she is entirely amicable.”

I thought perhaps that Pomona College, home of Cecil the Sagehen, had been established as a women’s college—hence, the adoption of a hen mascot. I imagined that after the college started admitting men, the mascot got rechristened as a male.

But, no—Pomona was founded as a coeducational college, back in the 1880s. Wikipedia tells us that its founder believed in educational equity. And its commitment to diversity continues today.

Story Safari lands a sagehen

But how did the sage hen become the Pomona College mascot? And when did it lose the space between the two words? I can answer the second question: At some point it ran into an editor trained in the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for the first, one story holds that a collegiate sportswriter who meant to write about the sage (wise) Huns typed hens instead. To this day, the college website defends the honor of its early 20th century proofreaders and points out the distance an errant finger would have to travel to type E instead of U. Although the story may be apocryphal, the college offers no alternative explanation.

Still, I like the idea of sagehens as a college mascot. Apparently young sage grouse are remarkably self-sufficient. Wikipedia again:

“Chicks can walk as soon as they are hatched and are able to fly short distances within two weeks. Within five weeks they are able to fly longer distances.”

And isn’t that one of the reasons colleges exist? To equip young people to navigate the wider world, as quickly and effectively as possible.


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Also published on Medium.

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