sunnudagur, febrúar 24, 2008


First the most familiar ones.

Lions and tigers come to us from Latin (leo, tigris) and Greek (leon, tigris) though Old French (lion, tigre), though some of the tigers, oddly, made a detour though England (OE tigras). The tigers may ultimately be Iranian. In Iceland the tigers are tigrisdýr, as if helpfully labeled by a literal-minded classifier: "tiger-animal." The lions may be Semitic: Hebrew is labi. They got loose in Germanic early: German Löwe, Old Norse ljón. They have long since set up camp on the banners and shields of Europe.

Then further afield.

Cheetahs are from Hindi (chita) from Sanskrit (chitraka), named for its spots. The root is citra, and its semantic range is quite wonderful: bright, clear, that strikes the eye, speckled, strange, curious, a riddle, a pun.

No one talks about pards anymore, but they are good Latin cats (pardus) with Greek roots (pardos). They may have relatives in Sanskrit (prdakuh).Without them we wouldn't have leopards, which are of course lion-pards by way of Old French (lebard, leupart) -- thence Icelandic hlébarður. If it were straight from the Latin, it would be ljón-barður, but it is instead a courtly transplant like the chivalric romances. The first element now looks like the word for pause (hlé), making Icelandic leopards lazy cats indeed.

Lynxes are old; they have their own PIE root, *leuk-, shared with words for light in languages across Europe. Lynx, also, are found widely (Lithuanian luzzis, OGH luhs, German luchs, OE lox, Swedish lo). The Greeks get them before we do (lyngz). (Whence Norwegian gaupe and Icelandic gaupa? I have no idea.)

The ounce is as rare as the pard these days. We would not have them at all without the French, who mistook the l- in lonce -- from postulated Vulgar Latin *luncea, from Latin lyncea and lynx -- for a definite article and gave us once. I like these confusions. This is how we got newts from efts and nicknames from eke-names. Now we have ounces if we want to be poetical when discussing snow leopards.

The jaguar's scientific name is Felis onca, in which onca is, I think, a neo-Latin word back-formed off the French misunderstanding, thus ounce-cat, lynx-cat. The leopard frog is Rana onca, and with onca standing for leopard we have the jaguar as leopard-cat or even lion-pard-cat, which seems excessive. The name jaguar itself is a Portuguese borrowing of a Tupi word (jaguara).

Ocelot was coined in the 18th century, in French, by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, based on part (ocelotl) of a Nahuatl word (tlalocelotl) for jaguar. The word's affinity with chocolate (xocolatl) pleases me. From now on I will probably think of the ocelot as the chocolate cat.

Lastly the panther. It is prosaic Old French (panthere) from Latin (panthera) from Greek (panther), apparently with Sanskrit parallel (pundarikam) meaning tiger. Older interpretations are more interesting. Some people are still discussing whether its derivation could be Greek pan-ther, all-animal. In the Exeter Book and the Aberdeen Bestiary, the panther is a figure for Christ, thus Christ is the true panther: dominus noster Iesus Christus verus pantera. The panther's breath and voice are sweet, and it sleeps a full three days after eating before rising on the third. Perhaps on Easter morning I will come downstairs to find panthers waiting for me.

None of this possible without Douglas Harper.

föstudagur, febrúar 15, 2008


PIE *lewbh -

Lithuanian liaupsẽ̇, 'praising'
Albanian laps, 'wish, want'

Old Church Slavonic l'ubu, 'dear, beloved'

Gothic liufs, 'dear'
Old High German liob, 'dear'
Old Icelandic ljúfr, 'dear'
Old English lēof, 'dear'

Latin libet, 'is beloved'

Sanskrit lúbhyati, 'feels a strong desire'

Hesychius' Lexicon (5th C.) gives us the Greek word lyptá: 'concubine, prostitute.' There is no relation to the casual Roman word lupa, 'whore,' which literally means 'she-wolf.' The modern descendants are in Spanish loba, Italian lupa, and French louve. That last one is also confusing, or perhaps for some, evocative, but Proto-Germanic *lubo and OCS l'ubu have nothing to with any Spanish lobo. However the Roman lupa and the Greek lyptá disported themselves, love and wolves shared no common PIE ground.

Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place. If I shut my eyes, cock my head, prick up my ears, I might hear them outside singing liaupsẽ̇, songs of praise, uncer giedd geador.

miðvikudagur, febrúar 06, 2008


Three days and nights of feverish dreaming.


We were hidden up there in the dingy white room only I knew about, a tiny servant's quarters on the upmost floor of the old house. We were protected there from the outside by a steel grate like trap door. We decided we would let in as many as we could until we unequivocally ran out of space, but we had to be sure they were still fully human. We were dubious when those two of them came asking for shelter. The face of one was so gray and his eyes so bulging that we couldn't be sure about him. Then he started to sing. We all joined in the familiar tune as we slid the bolt away and opened the grate.

No one dared venture out in search of food. Below we saw one of them go flailing madly by. Then we waited.

It passed eventually, and it was safe to emerge onto the streets into a new, refreshed world. I got the feeling that it had been years.


This I remember the least well. I recall his back looked familiar to me from where I stood as he rolled away from me in the bed, even though he'd become hairier with age. It happens to some men.


There were impossibly tall brick walls -- brick like an abandoned industrial building from the 1920s -- around an open space. If you fell (or jumped) you landed in a sea of green mold and spores that floated up around you and threatened to choke you.

Also there was swimming. I tried to hit a slow, steady pace so as not to run up onto the soles of the swimmer in front of me (a woman with the physique of a rower). A smaller woman, stunted maybe, dogged me and criticized. I concentrated on my breathing. I found it odd not to have to turn my head but slightly.

laugardagur, febrúar 02, 2008


The morning is bright and blustery after a cold night. The wind has peeled the leaves away from where their shadows had frozen to the pavement. They are as colorless as glass, delicate as slippers forsaken on the steps of the palace.
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