Monday, April 13, 2009

Speaking of the Unspeakable

As a follow-up to my ball-chopper of a word-of-the-week, I can offer this: Wikipedia’s list of proper terminology for neutered animals, which, of course, is more extensive than I would have guessed.
  • wether — a castrated sheep or goat. (Not from the phrase “I don’t know whether it’s a ram or a ewe now,” fun though that would be, but instead from a similar old English word for “ram” that also gives us the term bellwether.)
  • ox, steer and bullock — all terms for castrated bulls. (With ox being a barely changed evolution of the Proto Indo-European root uks-en-, which itself translates to “bull” but which literally translates as “besprinkler,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, anyway. Steer goes back to the Old English steor, which may descend from the same Proto Indo-European root as the word taurus. And bullock comes from the Old English bulluc, “a young bull.” Didn’t know about this last one until today. Makes me think of the impotent, sputtering Batman character differently. Weirdly, there doesn’t seem to be a direct relationship between bullock and bollocks, as in “Never Mind the Bollocks.” This British word for those special types of Easter eggs seems to be associated more with the verb bollix, “to botch” or “to bungle,” than with the actual bull himself. It’s worth noting, I guess, that both bull and ball supposedly come from the same Proto Indo-European root bhel-, meaning “to inflate” or “to swell.”)
  • capon — a castrated cock, though in the larger sense. (From a similar Old English word referring to a castrated clucker, just as its contemporary counterpart does. Makes me think of the string-clamping guitar tool, the capo. Apologies for that, Mr. Guitar, though I loved how it made you sing in a higher pitch.)
  • gelding — a castrated horse. (From the verb to geld, “to castrate,” though why we call these poor creatures geldings and not geldeds is beyond me.)
  • gib — a castrated cat or ferret. (Another new one. American Heritage Dictionary and Merrian-Webster both claim it comes from a nickname for Gilbert without offering any reason why such a nickname would become associated with nicked cats and ferrets. Poor Gilbert, I guess.)
  • havier — a castrated deer. (Although I should note that none of the dictionaries I use offer this word. Perhaps Wikipedia is wrong. Or perhaps someone named Javier does, in fact, shares a certain shame with Gilbert.)
  • barrow — a castrated boar. (I would assume that this one would be connected to the other barrow — something that carries a load, in the sense of a wheelbarrow — since castrated male animals tend to grow large, strong and steady. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. AHD is unusually quite on this word’s origins, citing only the Old English bearg as an ancestor. The more common barrow goes back differently, though I suppose they could converge at some point.)
  • lapin — a castrated rabbit. (Without giving any clue as to where this word might come from, Merriam-Webster claims it can refer to either what Wikipedia posits or a certain kind of processed rabbit fur. AHD offers only the second definition.)
  • stag — a castrated bull or sheep. (Probably the strangest of the lot, given the proliferation of the term stag party and the fact that stag parties would be best enjoyed by non-castrated males. With deer, it refers to non-castrated males, but the stags of other species are not so lucky. The Online Etymology Dictionary places its origins likely with the Old English stagga, meaning the same. It also notes, amazingly, that the Old Norse equivalent “was used for male foxes, tomcats and dragons.” I’m sure the need to differentiate between male and female dragons was important at some point, to someone.)
Not that the majority of my readership has much reason to use these in the near future, but good to know they exist. Also awful to know they exist, but whatever.

The lesson:

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Don’t ask “Why is that cat sad?” Instead say “I know exactly why that gib is sad. Leave him alone.”

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Why do we have words for all the neutered males of all this common animals but not dogs? Dogs should be the first one to get a word like these.

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  2. Yeah, good point. Don't know why we don't have one, but we don't, at least according to the list above. A quick Google search didn't seem to turn up any special term for a neutered male dog, so maybe there is no such word. I'll look again later.

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