Etymology, Ethology, but not Entomology
June 5, 2010
Pondering the derivations of some words, specifically, why some words have clear opposites and others only have a negative version—bad, good; but conditional, unconditional—I got stuck, attempting to think of a word that would describe the comforting sensation I feel when my cat settles down next to me and starts purring. Unconditional love, the adage goes, is why people keep pets. Hearing her then make a sound like a huffing sigh, which is unusual for a cat, I reflected with some trepidation on how I might be one of those people who seem sometimes to match their pets and vice versa. Daydreaming still (ah, summertime), I wondered about how many terms I could think up for animal attributes used in metaphors about people.
The concept of how metaphors are made, and how they “mean” is in itself an intellectual process worth considering. Symbolism, semiotics, and linguistics are all involved (Petrilli). Yet so are clichés. You may come across many of those as you work through the long novels so well suited to a summer day, such as that of the doe-eyed heroine with the creamy complexion; the beady, wild eyes of the antagonist; the deer-in-the-headlights look of the frightened victim. In the movies, there’s Gordon Gecko giving lizards a bad name again in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Some of these zoomorphic terms are in such currency that we have lost track of their history, like “hang-dog expression”, which has a current meaning now quite different from the Oxford English Dictionary’s first use. Or terms that we don’t realize are related to distinctly American history or species, such as “cagey” or “raccoon eyes.” Come to think of it, the genre might make a good starting point for an imaginative research topic.
There is general acceptance of adjectives like beastly and catty, based ethologically on observed animal behavior, but how about fishy or foxy? I wonder if these terms are prone to different interpretations, which depend on subtle cultural understandings as well as linguistic evolution.
I will readily admit to applying anthropomorphic attributes to my pets, like personality quirks or their supposed need to listen to me. But would I accept animal traits applied to me? Certainly I’d like to be recognized as eagle-eyed and swift-footed. I hope I am not hawk-faced, sheepish, or that I laugh like a hyena. I would, however, admit to applying these terms to other members of the human race, and like Durrell (My Family and Other Animals) I could probably think of apt examples.
Yet why do we consider some animals better or more likeable than others? Vultures do a tremendous service for ecological balance and are very efficient at what they do. What, for example, do pandas do, but eat bamboo all day long? The link between us and the cute panda, biologists have observed, is based on their over-the-top infant-like appearance, or “supernormal stimulus” to humans (Alcock).
So as animals evolve strategies to appeal to us, or protect themselves from us, our language is enriched by our observations of their behaviors and appearance. We use these as metaphors as a kind of shorthand, or, to evoke a poetic vision. Do you remember what “comes on little cat feet” as Sandburg said in his poem? It is a relaxing image to keep at hand for these (all too few) long hot summer days.
- Alcock, John. "Of pandas and politics." Natural History 102.4 (1993): 88. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 July 2010.
- Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.
- "ethology noun" The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Portland Community College. 20 July 2010.
- Palmatier, Robert A. Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995. Print.
- Petrilli, Susan. “Meaning, metaphor, and interpretation: Modeling new worlds” Semiotica Aug 2006. 161: 1-4. p. 75–118 Database: Communication & Mass Media Complete.
- Sandburg, Carl. “Fog.” Reprinted in: Nelson, Cary, ed. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print. (p. 112).
- "zoomorphic adj." The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Twelfth edition . Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Portland Community College. Web. 12 July 2010.
Library & Learning
Vol 2 Issue 4 June 2010