Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Cats, Weasels, and Sharks and What!?

Cat and ailuros

The words "ailurophobia" and "ailurophobe" may not be familiar to most of us. I'd encountered them in a book by Thomas K. Merton, "On The Shoulders of Giants," several years ago then forgotten them until I reopened that book recently[fn:1]. I'd been researching Latin words for cat (felis catus) and so was intrigued by this very different Greek root, if such were confirmed to be correct. The [Wikipedia article on the cat] treats of the source of the name "cat" including Byzantine Greek, sensibly omitting mention of another, quite different Ancient Greek name.
What is "ailurophobia" and why is it called that? Wiktionary provides the following etymology with their definition, "An irrational fear or hatred of cats or other felines."
The Wikipedia treatment of "ailurophobia" also asserts (incorrectly, I believe, for reasons which will become apparent) that a synonym (the only one) is "galeophobia".

Cats, Weasels, and Now Sharks

What is galeophobia, and what is the meaning of "galeo-"? Galeophobia is the fear of sharks! The link to fear of cats is apparently the ancient Greek name for the "dogfish" (what!?), γαλεός (galeos, “dogfish, small shark”) (a type of shark with weasel-like markings; derived from γαλῆ (galē), γαλέη (galeē, “weasel, cat”))[1] + phobia. Thus, it seems that some contributor to Wiktionary considered shark to be a synonym for cat (or weasel). And the ancient Greeks conflated weasels and cats.

Might the Wiktionary synonym linker have confused "galeophobia" with a similarly spelled truer synonym? Perhaps "gatophobia" or "galephobia" might have been intended, if either or both of those exists. Checking the French language entry (French is my other language), one finds that in modern Greek the common word for cat is γάτα (gata), and synonyms for "ailurophobie" include "félinophobie", "élurophobie" and "gatophobie."

"Gato-" not "galeo-" seems a plausible confusion for the English synonym misdirection. Yet Wiktionary does not have any entry for the term "gatophobia" (in English). Nor does the French Wiktionnaire actually have an entry for "gatophobie"; the entry for "galéphobie" (I do not recall how I found it) does give "fear of cats" ("peur des chats," syn. "ailurophobie") as the meaning and proposes an etymology from Ancient Greek γαλέη galéê (« weasel », Fr.« belette »). But "gale phobia" is not found in English (except in the context of The Hunger Games fandom).
So, we have:

And Asian Bears?

A cross-check with the encyclopaedic dictionary "Larousse Pour Tous" (1908?, in 2 volumes), to see whether there was a discernible traditional preference for naming fear of cats a century ago, led to two findings, one of them a serendipitous finding[fn:2]. First, phobias seem almost entirely absent from this great compendium. Second, almost exactly where one might find "ailurophobie" is an entry for "ailurope," some sort of exotic animal.

The names for phobias may have been left out as too technical, figments "tous" (all) did not need; not even "claustrobphobie" appears, only "agoraphobie". Those sought, to no avail, were galephob*, ailurophob*, galéophobie, gatophobie.

What is, or was, an "ailurope"?: a genre (genus) of carnivorous mammals, including "bears remarkable for their white and black fur" : the "ailurope" lives in high regions of central Asia. It looks, in the engraved image, rather like a giant panda, but wouldn't they say so? Also, aren't panda eaters of leaves and shoots, not carnivores?

Further research confirms that "ailurope" could have been the common name (in French) for "ailuropoda melanoleuca" in 1908. The panda was known to Westerners of that time only by a skin received by a missionary in 1869; the first Westerner known to have seen a live panda did so only in 1916. As to the origin of the name 'panda', according to Wikipedia, "No conclusive explanation of the origin of the word 'panda' has been found. The closest candidate is the Nepali word ponya, possibly referring to the adapted wrist bone. " Clearly, in 1908 France the name "panda" would have been unknown, whereas "ailurope" (short--vulgate--for "ailuropoda") could have been in use.

Why "Ailuropoda"? Are giant pandas "ailuropodic"? As "ailuro-" was the root at the outset of this quest, we know that it means cat. We might also recall that "poda" means foot or paw, as in "gastropods" (snails and slugs and such) that use their gut as their foot. Giant pandas are named "cat paws"! Indeed, the giant panda is called "bear cat" or "cat bear" in Chinese language (along with "spotted bear" and "bamboo bear" and several other names), but more for its eyes than for its paws.

[fn:1] Merton claimed to be an "ailurophile" and possibly coiner of the term, as I rediscovered.
[fn:2: "Serendipitous finding" seems redundant, but how else can it be put? The finding resulting from serendipity might be called a "serendipition", but that word does not exist, and would be quite a mouthful to say.

Tags: :

StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!
Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?