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.

3 ummæli:

tristan sagði...

that is a very sweet joke ... and what better way to spend easter ?

Badger sagði...

Lynx, use the Force.

tristan sagði...

late afterthought ... there's a puma on the cover of an old roxy music album, for your pleasure, 1973

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