Issue 187, page 1

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Animal groups


Melanie is reading an interesting book at the moment, The Future Eaters, by Tim Flannery (for sale in our book store).  In it Flannery talks about the ancient flora and fauna of Australia, New Zealand, and surrounding islands, his ultimate goal being to show that man has been causing mass extinctions for many thousands of years.  One group of fauna that is frequently mentioned in discussions of Oz (Flannery's book included), is the marsupials.  Where did that word come from?

The marsupial known as the opossum, Didelphis virginialis.  Click to learn more.Marsupial is a relatively recent word, but it was not originally used to describe a type of animal.  The earliest written use of the word was to describe the "marsupeal muscle", a muscle in the thigh.  That muscle was named thus because it resembled a pouch, and that is etymologically what marsupial means: "characterized by having a pouch".  It derives from Latin marsupium, "pouch", which Latin apparently borrowed from Greek marsippion, diminutive of marsyppos "pouch".  Marsupiale was the form that was first used zoologically, and it referred to the opossum.

So if marsupials are pouched mammals, what are mammals?  English borrowed mammal from Latin Mammalia "the class of mammals", in the early 19th century.  Mammalia came ultimately from Latin mamma "breast", which is so named because mothers have the breasts by which babies are suckled.  And mothers are so named (mamma) because ma ma are some of the first syllables that babies utter (da da being the the others). So, quite simply , mammals are the animals who suckle their young. Related by meaning is mastodon, which literally means "nipple teeth". A French scientist who examined fossils of these large, hairy and extinct elephants observed that the protrusions on its teeth were "nipple-shaped". [Did we mention that he was French?] 

Now we move (or should we say "creep"?) to the reptiles.  For it is their method of movement which gave them their name.  To the Romans, anything which crept or crawled was reptilis, an adjective formed from repere "to crawl, or creep".  In other words, reptile means "creepy-crawly". Its modern usage is much more specific and no longer includes worms, slugs and insects, as it did in Latin.

The etymology of bird has flown away with the birds, for it can only be taken back to Old English brid (yes, an example of metathesis), which originally referred to young birds.  There are no known cognates in any other Germanic languages.

What about fish?  This is a very old and venerable world which goes back to Old English and beyond.  In Old English it was fisc.  The Germanic cognates are all very similar: Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old High German fisc, Middle Dutch visc, Old Icelandic fiskr and Gothic fisks.  Interestingly, Robert K. Barnhart suggests that these nouns developed from the verbs in each language that meant "to catch fish" - so catching fish had a name before the objects of the catching!  The Latin cognate is, of course, piscis, suggesting an Indo-European root of *peisk-, though the Greek ikhthus is not related.

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