Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

At the Zoo

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2009

Cyclone at Zoombezi BayDoug has been spending his days this week in a day camp at the Columbus Zoological Garden, and while he’s been there, Adam and I have been entertaining ourselves at the zoo and its adjacent waterpark. Here are some linguistic items that have caught my attention in the course of doing that.

First, here’s something Adam and I heard while we were waiting in line for the Cyclone, a waterslide that uses inner tubes that will seat four people. (Digression: Funny we still call them inner tubes. Of course, water parks have never used actual inner tubes for their slides, but when the tube is like two or four inner tubes fused together, the name seems especially inapt.) In front of us were four girls in their early teens. As they contemplated the 55-foot drop in the slide, and wondered which of them would end up sliding down backwards, one girl said that she thought she might “hurl.” They discussed how this might bear on where she sat in the tube; Hurl Girl asked one of the others:

Do you want hurl on you?

Well, why not? The verbs vomit, throw(-)up, and barf all work as nouns, so why shouldn’t the more recent verb of regurgitation hurl be allowed to do it, too? All the same, it was new to me, and sounded funny. Are there other synonyms for the verbs vomit that can’t be used as nouns? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that there was a puddle of ralph on the floor. And of course, verb phrase idioms don’t lend themselves well to turning into nouns — I don’t think English speakers would say He got {toss-his-cookies, worship-the-porcelain-urn, lose-his-lunch} all over his shirt. Do you?

redtailed hawkA while back, I wrote about how as a child I was confused by my mom’s two-syllable pronunciation of striped, and one day decided I would henceforth use the one-syllable pronunciation /straIpt/ (to rhyme with griped and sniped) because I just couldn’t see any reason why striped shouldn’t pattern with other words that added an -ed suffix to a word. I never made similar adjustments for words like wicked, naked, or crooked, maybe because I didn’t perceive wick, nake, or crook as words unto themselves. (Or maybe not, since I certainly knew the word rag, but still pronounce the adjective ragged with two syllables.) I was suddenly reminded of these words as Adam and I attended “Raptorama,” a lecture on various birds of prey. As the docent pointed out the red-tailed hawk’s hunting adaptations, he referred several times to its “crooked beak”, pronouncing crooked as /krʊkt/, to rhyme with booked and cooked. Or, now that I think about it, hooked. It could be that he was saying hooked beak, which would make more sense, but it sure sounded like crooked. I pronounce the past tense of the verb crook that way, as in “He crooked a finger at me,” but not the adjective crooked. What about you?

I also noticed that he consistently pronounced talon as /’tælɘn/ to rhyme with gallon, with the second syllable unstressed and the vowel accordingly reduced to schwa. So did Adam, when the docent called on him. I, however, pronounce talon with two stressed syllables, so that the second vowel is not reduced: /’tælɐn/. Who’s with me?

langurIn the Asia Quest section of the zoo, Adam and I saw langurs. A sign said that langur was Hindi for “sacred monkey”. “I’ll bet it’s not,” I thought. “I’ll bet that langur is Hindi for langur, and that it so happens that langurs are considered sacred in India.” I was right. The Hindi word for sacred is dharmika or any of several other words, none of them forming any part of langur. Monkey in Hindi is kapi or bandara. Meanwhile, as far as I’ve been able to tell, langur in Hindi just means “langur”, and that the word is related to the Sanskrit word for “tailed”.

Their etymology for panda is a bit more accurate: The sign said it came from a Tibetan word meaning “bamboo eater”. The OED backs this up, saying it’s “probably an alteration of the second element of nigálya-pónya“. However, it’s the nigálya part that means “cane-eating” (in Nepali, actually); the Tibetan word pónya, which actually evolved into the current name, just means “animal”. But it’s still true that panda came from a word meaning “bamboo eater”.

In the Australia section, the koala exhibit had a sign saying that koala meant “no water” in the Aborigine language. Their reference to “the” Aborigine language didn’t inspire confidence. Which one did they mean? Aside from that, though, I haven’t found anything to contradict this claim. Do you know anything about it, Claire?

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13 Responses to “At the Zoo”

  1. The Ridger said

    I’m with you on crooked, but not talon.

    The panda story reminded of Gaelic pón (kiss) which comes from the Latin osculum pacis, kiss of peace, except they borrowed the wrong part of the Latin phrase… (same thing with the word for boat, which is long from navis longa…).

    • Neal said

      Good point about the Gaelic word for kiss. The panda etymology should have reminded me, and your example finally did remind me, of the French foie, which comes from the Latin iecur ficatus “fig(-stuff)ed liver”, specifically from the part that meant “figged”, not the part that meant “liver”.

      • AJD said

        I’m reminded also of the English word kebab, which is used to refer to just about anything cooked on a skewer and is of course short for shish kebab, which comes from Turkish şiş kebab ‘skewered meat’—where şiş means ‘skewer’ and kebab just means ‘roasted meat’.

    • A little spelling correction: the Gaelic word for kiss is not pón but pòg in Scottish Gaelic and póg in Irish (and póc in Old Irish).

  2. I’m with you on “crooked” but with Adam on “talon.” I definitely stress the first and the schwa comes along in the second syllable.

  3. Viola said

    With you on crooked. With Adam on talon.

  4. The Ridger said

    urg. The word for kiss is póg.

  5. Ellen K. said

    Crook as a verb is new to me. Though, still, “crooked” as a form of a verb “crook” I would pronounce as one sylable.

  6. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve never heard “talon” pronounced any way but as a rhyme for “gallon”, so it might be a regional difference. As for “striped” and “crooked”…two syllables as an adjective, one as a verb. (A sentence like “Sunlight striped the wall as it shone through the blinds” makes perfectly good sense to me at least…)

  7. Reminds me of how the word “party” became a verb. That used to annoy me. Party meant “a gathering of people” like “a landing party.” I knew as a kid that party also meant good times. But think of how culture have divided these two:

    “Let’s go to a party.”
    “Let’s party.”

    At some point, “party” became a verb. Not sure when this happened, I suspect the 1980s, but someone else may have proof of an earlier use this way. Like “hurl” became a noun, party became a verb. But not only that, as a verb, party implies something on the edge of a bacchanal. In those two examples, one would assume that the first would be a formal celebration with hats and cake. The second would be an event where someone might end up naked and unconscious.

    And no one assumed “party” means anything else, like a landing party. If “let’s party” is used in a military invasion, they mean “there will be death, screaming, and glory,” not “there will be a landing on the beach.”

    • As another side note I thought of was this “de-motivational” gag:

      In this case, “rape” is translated as a countable noun when normally it is an act. The fact that “rape” is not something one measures in weight adds to the levity, hinging on the humor of the unexpected (which is then further impacted by the unsolved conflicting statement, “You know you want to open it,” which works on several levels of comedy).

  8. Juergen Lorenz said

    What’s wrong with going to For-ked River, NJ, to fish for stri-ped bass? Doesn’t everybody in New Jersey?

  9. [...] Whitman’s Literal-Minded, 8/19/09: At the Zoo (link) mass nouning of hurl [...]

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