Sunday, December 26, 2010

Vocabulary associated with animals

IN a mental ramble through the animal world, I realised that here is a veritable trove to tap for vocabulary and aphorisms. I went on to recall the myriad terms that are associated with animals.
Let me comment on the above title. Firstly, some people, when talking about animals, actually refer to mammals. Here I am being expansive – I use the term to include the larger members of the animal kingdom, be they insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, or mammals (but not including humans). Secondly, animals make all sorts of noise – bees buzz, birds chirp or twitter, cattle moo, cocks crow, donkeys bray, elephants trumpet, frogs croak (as do some singers hogging the karaoke mike), gibbons whoop, goats and sheep bleat, horses neigh or whinny, monkeys chatter, and turkeys gobble – but they do not talk. Even then, English has a special vocabulary associated with them. Let me elaborate.

Common names
Scientists know animals by their Latin names. We shall note their common names, and the special names for the male and the female, and for their young. These are best summarised in the table.
The female of some animals is easily named by merely adding on the feminine “-ess” suffix, e.g. lion/lioness and tiger/tigress. But what do we call the product of the rare union of two closely related species? A lion-tigress union produces a liger, while a tiger-lioness union produces a tigon. A horse-zebra union produces a hebra. (What about zorse?). A union between a horse and a donkey (= ass) produces a mule, not a honkey nor a dorse; and the hybrid animal resulting from a cross between cattle and buffalo is called a beefalo.
The table shows gaps in certain sets. It is hoped that readers will help to fill these gaps if indeed they are gaps.
Insects in general undergo a metamorphosis in their life cycle, so that their young have special terms associated with the different stages in their metamorphosis: egg/nit, then larva, then pupa/chrysalis, and finally imago (the adult). For the several insects that do not undergo complete metamorphosis, the term nymph is given to the juvenile. Frogs also undergo a metamorphosis in their growing up, starting as a fish-like juvenile called tadpole.

I once read that British big-game hunters (“in the days of empire”?) talk of their animals in the singular (I shot two lion today), symptomatic of a lingo (or snobbery?) among members of their circle. In common language, animals generally add on the “-s” or “-es” suffix to indicate the plural – except that the singular and the plural share the same form in the following examples: bison, carp, deer, fish (but fishes if used to indicate different kinds of fish) and sheep. To complicate matters, certain animals have the same form for the singular and the plural, plus the optional “-s” form for the plural; e.g. boar (i.e. plural same or boars), buffalo, elk, partridge, quail. Unusual plurals are goose/geese and ox/oxen. The word cattle is plural, for which there is no corresponding singular.
Then there are special words that refer to specific animals collectively; e.g. cattle (for “large ruminant animals with horns and cloven hoofs, chiefly domesticated”), fry (for the hatchlings of fish), kine (for cows), swine (for pigs), and vermin (for noxious and disease-carrying insects, rodents, etc, including animals inimical to agriculture).

Collective nouns
Why would one use an insipid expression like “a group of birds” or “a group of sheep” when there is a wealth of specific collective nouns for specific animals?
The following are some examples of the more uncommon ones: (1) an army of herring; (2) an aye of pheasants; (3) a clowder of cats; (4) a colony of bats or seals; (5) a covey of quail or partridge; (6) a crib of goats; (7) a crook of kangaroos; (8) a drey of squirrels; (9) a drove of oxen, sheep, or swine driven in a group; (10) an exultation of larks; (11) a gang of elks; (12) a murder of crows; (13) a murmuration of starlings; (14) an ostentation of peacocks; (15) a rookery of penguins or seals; (16) a skulk of foxes; (17) a sloth of bears; (18) an unkindness of ravens. (My thanks to Mr Ng Pak Leng for help in compiling this list.)
Note that in some cases the specific collective noun for a specific animal reflects some trait of the particular animal, e.g. a pride of lions (suggestive of a lion lording it over a group of lions or, more correctly, over his harem of lionesses) and a gaggle of geese (imitative of the noise made by geese). Such being the case, may I be excused for saying “a ladder of giraffes” or “a gobble of turkeys”? (Come to think of it, these could be terms already in use – and which I might have previously encountered and then winkled out from memory.)

Associated adjectives
The common names of animals, as with many nouns, may add on suffixes to form the adjectives, e.g. cat/cat-like or catty, elephant/elephantine, fish/fishy, fox/foxy, and sheep/sheepish.
Adjectives may also be derived from the Latin nouns. Such adjectives are used not to sound erudite but to distinguish from those derived from the common names of animals; for example, feline is not the same as catty; likewise, ovine does not mean sheepish. Here is a short list of Latin-derived adjectives: (1) ape/pithecoid; (2) ape or monkey/simian; (3) ass/asinine; (4) bear/ursine; (5) bee/apian; (6) bird/avian; (7) bull/taurine; (9) cat/feline; (10) cattle/bovine; (11) dog/canine; (12) fish/piscine or ichthyological (the latter word is of Greek origin); (13) fox/vulpine; (14) goat/caprine; (15) horse/equine; (16) lion/leonine; (17) pig/porcine; (18) sheep/ovine; (19) wolf/lupine.

Meat from animals
Certain animals are the source of meat, for which there are special terms, as in the following examples: cattle/beef; chicken/chicken; deer/venison; lamb/lamb; pig/pork; sheep/mutton. Note the word mutton, which, in Malaysia, is also taken to mean meat from goats, but such usage is decidedly incorrect. The dictionaries invariably define mutton as “the flesh of mature sheep used as food” or words to that effect. Will some reader put us wise to the proper term for goat-meat?

Expressions associated with animals
The animal world has provided the English language with aphorisms and evocative expressions. For example, “mutton dressed as lamb” is a derogatory description of an elderly woman trying to look young by wearing clothes or by dressing in a style suitable for a younger woman. Take another example: “a dog in the manger”, originating from one of Aesop’s fables, refers to a person who selfishly keeps something that he does not need so that others may not use or enjoy it.
Here are more examples: (1) to have a bee in one’s bonnet; (2) to bell the cat; (3) to set the cat among the pigeons; (4) to shed crocodile tears; (5) gone cuckoo; (6) to have other fish to fry; (7) what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; (8) a red herring; (9) a dark horse; (10) into the lion’s den; (11) stir up a hornets’ nest; (12) stubborn as a mule; (13) come home to roost; (14) one swallow does not make a summer.
In general, “animal” expressions are self-evident or else their meanings are easily obtained from dictionaries. In fact, reference to the dictionaries is recommended. One might find interesting facts about the basis of these expressions.

Closing remarks
I must admit that I rather enjoyed compiling, and making the occasional comment, on words in “animal” talk. Doggone it! Who say English in Malaysia one-kind one? We got know English enuf to comnikate with the world. Malaysia English not yet gone to the dogs.

TheStar, Friday December 24, 2010


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