Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bears, Butts, Bear Butts: A Vocabulary-Builder

Yes, Christmas has come and gone, but I’m no less fixated on crude sex jokes involving bears. Bear bears, I mean. Ursine ones. Damn. Has it ever occurred to anyone else how difficult it can be to distinguish animals from the Urisdae family from the human ones? I’d say the hairy, hungry, pudgy, sometimes cute-in-that-fat-kind-of-way beasts with a proclivity for frolicking in the woods, but that still wouldn’t necessarily rule out the human ones, especially depending on my audience.

And following that line of logic (and doing nothing to strengthen the connections between animal bears and human bears) I’d like to present the word of the week, which refers to something bears put in their bottoms.
tappen (TAP-ən) — noun: an plug that forms in the intestines of bears during hibernation.
Yup. It’s nature’s butt plug, quite literally. Tappens, however, perform the more practical service of protecting a hibernating animal’s digestive tract from being invaded by ants. Admit it: You never thought about the risks ants pose to unconscious animals’ digestive tracts, but now that you consider the situation, you realize such a device would be useful — necessary even.

Exactly how the tappen forms in unclear. Sources such as Wikipedia don’t mention the insect-blocking function at all, only that tappens make it difficult (though not impossible) for bears to defecate during hibernation, only to be painfully forced out in the springtime. And one dictionary (via Wordnik) claims that the tappen forms internally, “probably by feces modified by long retention.” The story I’m more familiar with, however, is the one that simultaneously makes me think more and less of bears: They make it with their little paws and insert it manually. A March 18, 1882, issue of Scientific American describes the joyous, annual tradition of tappen-making as follows: “[It] is formed of pine leaves and other material that the animal takes from ants’ nest and the trunks of trees in its search after honey.” The age of the source material makes me question whether bears actually do make a Martha Stewart-style homemade suppository. In fact, after a bit of looking around online, I was unable to find a conclusive answer about exactly how this wondrous product forms, though this page at least does a good job rounding up the theories.

The important part, however, is that exists, whether as a result of artisan bears or a well-timed, fiber-packed dinner. The word bears a suspicious resemblance to tampon, you may have noted. I don’t see an trustworthy etymology online, but I’d be willing to bet that tappen comes from the same roots that give us words like tap, tampon and tampion, all of which relate to devices that impede the flow of liquid in some way.

Normally, I try to include a photo in my posts, but I’m holding off today on grounds that that seems nasty. (Also pretty nasty: photos of the tragically named Tappen, North Dakota. Population: 210. Chief export: Beleaguered sighs.) Instead, I decided to offer you a seasonally appropriate image that also comes pretty damn close to the subject at hand. Enjoy!

And a holly, jolly, brick-and-you’re-drowning-slowly December 26.

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