A Festival of Words VII
Bill Long 3/27/07
From Katabatic to Cryptozoology
Two obstacles to good spelling, if that is ever your goal, are that many words have been spelled historically a variety of ways (and still are "in flux"), and many words, derived from other languages, have no agreed-upon English rendering. But dictionaries often make choices and favor one particular spelling even if it may be a "minority" spelling. If you are in a spelling bee, you have to live with the choice of dictionary used in the bee. But if you are really interested in concepts to which words point, you tend to overlook this problem and go right for the word. You find that many of the most interesting words, like cryptozoology, aren't even in the Unabridged (though it appears in the OED), and one of the most useful recent coinages, terpsimbrotes, is neither in the OED or Unabridged. Thus, the dictionaries, however sophisticated, are not only partial records, in both senses of the term, but themselves partake of the confusion they are supposed to dispel. Enough of that for now. Let's illustrate these issues by studying these two words.
The big debate in spelling the word "katabatic" is whether it should start with a "c" or a "k." The Unabridged, on which the Kids' Bee is based, defines it: "of or relating to the downward motion of air." The OED helpfully gives us its history of attestation. From 1918: "A local cold wind is called Katabatic if it is caused by the gravitation of cold air off high ground." The opposite is anabatic which, though it had a medical attestation as early as 1811, is more usually a meteorological term meaning the "upward motion of warmed air." While we are on this, we note that Xenophon's famous history, famous more because generations of 1st-year Greek students were forced to read it than because of its content or superior style, was called the Anabasis, the "going up" or a military advance. The military retreat, unsurprisingly enough, is called the katabasis.
But the Unabridged already tears away the arras to illumine a confusion. It lists dual spellings for c/katabasis; the word either begins with a "k" or a "c," while listing only katabatic for the adjective. Thus, it seems rather ridiculous that a word which is simply the noun form of the adjective must be spelled with an initial "k." If Google "hits" are the democratic means of determining spelling, however, katabasis rather than catabasis would be the right spelling.
So far, so good. I can live with katabasis and c/katabatic. But what about if you are interested in theology and the spelling bee's organizers really thought hard about words and wanted to point out the contrast between "negative" and "affirmative" theology? Well, most theologians don't know much about it, but here it is. Apophatic theology is "applied to knowledge of God obtained by way of negation" (OED). The Unabridged avoids the issue by not even having the word. That, in fact, is one way to handle a problem. But what do you call "affirmative" theology? Is it kataphatic or cataphatic? Well, the OED has it under cataphatic and not kataphatic. Something cataphatic is "defining God positively or by positive statements." The Google "hits" confirms that the spelling cataphatic is at least 10 times more popular than kataphatic. But, as you see, if you know too much about language, it really can get you into difficulties.
Oh, the Unabridged does have cataphasia, but with that ending you can conclude that it has something to do with "shrink-speech" rather than theology. Sure enough, it is defined as "verbigeration," which is "obsessive repetition of meaningless words and phrases, especially as a symptom of mental illness."
My big question, then, is when I hear a "cata" or "kata" prefix presented, and I know it is from the Greek, how do you determine what the first letter of the word is? There seems to be no consistency. But, then again, with Darfur and Iraq and North Korea and incompetency way up the ladder in the current Presidential Administration, many might feel that the "k" or "c" question can await another day.
Because this word appears in the OED but not in the Unabridged, it will not be used in a spelling bee. Pity, because it is such a useful word. The word was coined in the mid-20th century to mean "the study of extinct, unknown or legendary animals whose existence or survivial is not (or has not been) recognized by mainstream zoology." Ah yes, this class would include griffins (interestingly, listed as "griffin, griffon, gryphon" in the OED--it can't make up its mind. The Unabridged lists it in the same way. Whoops, that means this word also won't be used in bees because it can be spelled multiple ways) and hippogriffs and basilisks and the amphisbaena and many other supposed creatures. So eager were these students of cryptozoology that they decided to form the International Society of Cryptozoology in Washington, DC in 1981. Doesn't that sound "so 80s"?
In any case, I breathlessly tried to research these guys to learn what they are up to today. Along the way I discovered that they adopted the okapi as their mascot. Maybe that was a hopeful sign, because the okapi, found today only in a limited area of NE Zaire, was only "discovered" by Western scientists in 1900* though native peoples had
["the guy's name was Harry Johnston, Britain's High Commissioner for Uganda. Interestingly enough, the species is now known as the Okapia johnstoni. You would think that the "Congo dwarfs," as he called them, who pointed them out to him, would have gotten some of the credit for Johnston's "discovery"...]
known of it for centuries prior to this. Perhaps by adopting this animal as their mascot, the cryptozoologists were saying that someday they hoped to find the yeti (abominable snowman of Tibet) or the basilisk or lots of other of these creatures.
But their optimism was short-lived because the leaders of the movement, and the society itself, ended up dying. Well, you can't weep for the leaders too much, since dying is what we all must do. But they, like the mythical creatures whom they wanted to study, the cryptids as they called them, were unable to reproduce themselves or, better said, were unable to shake down sufficient funds to continue operations. Thus, as of 2005 they seem to be no more.
But just as the Arizona desert breaks forth into a symphony of color when some winter rain has fallen on it, so the study of cryptids took off, despite the folding of the society. One delightful web page I found on the subject is "Dave's Mythical Creatures and Places." Dave has the good sense to divide up the world of these beasts into: biblical beings (such as angels, cherubim, seraphim, behemoth, leviathan, and Ezekiel's "tetramorph,"), serpents and dragons, part-human creatures, winged beasts, land beasts and sea creatures. If you look closely at the list of dozens and dozens of creatures he gives, you are bound to learn lots of new words, even some that the OED and Unabridged don't have.
In order to whet your interest I will close with a mention of one of them: the bonnacon, also, suitably, spelled bonacon and bonasus. The Unabridged has bonasus, but it defines it as a "wisent," which is a bison and very much alive. In any case, the bonnacon was "an Asian animal, like a bison, that emits noxious vapors from its rear if attacked." The vapors can cover 3 acres and will burn trees in its path. Pliny is the source for his quotation.
That is enough for one day, even though we could spend hours on mythical creatures, some of which will no doubt overlap. But it would permit us to escape to another world, which might not be such a bad idea...