A Festival of Words III
Bill Long 3/23/07
Some of the words I would like to explore here are ananym, lipogram, shamanstvo, capuchin and agouti. I think I will begin with agouti and, now that I think of it, I may never extricate myself from agouti in this essay. But that is why there is this afternoon and evening. Let's see where it goes.
The Unabridged neatly defines an agouti, also spelled agouty, as a "rodent of the genera Dasyprocta and Myoprocta." They are brown and grizzled in color and about the size of a rabbit. But definition 2 speaks of agouti as the color itself. The OED defines this color more, well, colorfully: "the brindled appearance exhibited by the agouti as a result of individual hairs of its fur being banded in their pigmentation; such a banded condition." A very nice picture of an agouti is here. Here are a few interesting facts. Dasyprocta is Greek for "fuzzy butt," where dasys means "hairy," and "procta," well you don't have to be a proctologist to know what that means (Oh, myo is from the Greek mo, meaning "muscle" or "mouse." I think that it is the latter here...)Thus the action is all in the butt, so to speak, for these rodents. They have sharp and longish hairs on their rear ends, but the hairs, which is brown or black in its roots, is either silver, tan, yellow or orange when it grows out. Hence the color or color combination known as agouti.
Well, as most other creatures on God's good earth, the Dasyprocta are related to other living things, mostly the "guinea pig" which, as various people tell us, are neither pigs nor from Guinea. The Suborder where the agouti find themselves, though they are probably ignorant of this fact, is the Caviomorpha, which means "cavy-like." We can go further. A cavy, according to the OED is a "rodent of the genus Cavia or family Cavidae." Just look at a picture of them online and you will see what they look like. Another word for cavy is cabiai, which is the Galibi (French Guiana) name of the capybara, which is a "cavy."* I was fascinated by the way
[*So as not to become too obscure, I will put this in a footnote. The OED tells us that there is also an attestation of cavy as a shortened or corrupt form of peccavi. Peccavi is the Latin word for "I have sinned." Thus it is a process of acknowledging one's guilt. We have the phrase in English "to cry peccavi," which means to admit one's guilt. As recently as 1997 the NY Times, in describing former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's remarkable mea culpa for bungling the Vietnam War, said "Wouldn't it be 'loverly' if Robert McNamara, now crying 'peccavi,' were to distribute the millions derived from his book to Vietnam veterans?"]
that the Century defined the Caviidae (note the extra "i" here): "a family of hystricomorphic simplicident mammals or the ordr Rodentia or Glires, peculiar to South America." Something simplicident has something to do with "simple teeth," but hystricomorphic ought not to be missed. A hystrix, in Greek, is a porcupine. Thus, something hystricomorphic is "porcupine-like" or "in the form of a porcupine." Yesterday I exposited Phil. 2:5-11, the "Christ hymn," in which Christ didn't count equality with God a thing to be grasped, even though he was in the "form of God." Thus, should we call Jesus "theomorphic" while our friends the rodents are "hystricomorphic"? With all the ways that Jesus' opponents were "prickly" in his presence, maybe we can call his interlocutors "hystricomorphs" in disguise.
Back to agoutis and their friends. This website says that the agoutis are in the same Suborder with the aperea (the wild "guinea pig") and the capybara, the world's largest rodent. As luck would have it, these two other words give us a window into dictionary-making, for capybara appears in all major dictionaries, while aperea is absent from almost all. The capybara is the largest rodent on earth, often exceeding four feet in length. What would your reaction be if you opened the cabinet under the sink and one of these furry guys jumped out at you? The capybara (Hydrochaerus hydrochaeris), also annoyingly spelled capibara in the Century, was named more than 230 years ago, while the aperea, which only appears in the Unabridged, is "a wild cavy possibly ancestor to the domesticated guinea pig." I look forward to meeting these and many other creatures in my "Linnean" work, which I just began a few days ago.
Concluding with a Poem
Now, after all of these words about a brindled or mottled thing, I close with one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins. Packing the langauge almost to the breaking point, Hopkins wrote "Pied Beauty," his hymn to "dappled" and "brinded" things:
"GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Look at this poem, which must be memorized and meditated upon to catch the pregnant power in each phrase or word. It is only missing one thing: the brindled world of the agouti.
At this pace I will get through my complete catalogue of English words sometime in the 24th century. Luckily I can move more quickly in the next essay.