Friday, April 11, 2008

Quagga Attack Lakes, Etymological Presumptions

The paper has run a few stories on the threat of the quagga mussel, a Ukrainian mollusk whose tendency to obliterate a municipality’s ability to get water to people who need it verges on scifi-level scary. (Read all about it. No really, do. It’s a good article. ) In editing the piece, I ended up looking into the details of this unassuming little monster — particularly where it got its name.

behold the quagga

When first discussing the quagga in the newsroom, one of my coworkers wondered aloud if some etymological connection existed between it and the quahog, the edible mussel that’s probably most famous for sharing its name with the setting of Family Guy, Quahog, Rhode Island. It would certainly seem probable. Wikipedia explains that “quahog” comes into English from Narragansett, a Native American language. As far as a town name, Wikipedia posits that “Quahog” might be a reference to the real-life Rhode Island community of Quonochontaug, though the differences between the two cities makes that seem unlikely.

When I finally looked up “quagga,” I was surprised to learn that the word has no connection to either any Native American term or any word from the Ukraine. “Quagga” seems to come from an obsolete spelling of the Afrikaans word that is now spelled “kwagga,” which in turn came from the word “quácha” of the African Khoikhoi language. In its original context, “quagga” referred to a now extinct relative of the zebra, which, like the mussel, had brown and white stripes that fade from one part of the animal’s body to the other. The fact that the mussel was named after the zebra-like animal seems especially appropriate given that the quagga is classified in the genus Dreissena along with the Zebra mussel, another striped, invasive mollusk species that poses a threat to American waterways.

quagga (non-mollusk, non-threatening version)

So despite appearances otherwise, the similarity between “quagga” and “quahog” results only from a coincidence. My persona association between the quagga and the Family Guy town was further cemented last week, however, when I read a headline by one of the other newspapers on the problem. It read simply “Quagga quagmire,” and, of course, being a member of the Adult Swim-addled generation, I now no longer hear the word “quagmire” without thinking of Quagmire himself.

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