Daily Archives: June 29, 2011

anoplothere

You raise this word to your eyes, scan it once. At any distance it has a certain length and density, lightened slightly by the openness of the two o’s. But at the first real glance, words leap out at you and you can’t stop them: a no plot here. Look again and the here becomes there, but then what is the rest – is there a partial nope, or an interrupted plosive plo, or an anonymous that is mostly anonymous? Are the ruins of Constantinople interrupted by something other?

Swirl it and more dances before your eyes. Did you glimpse hoplite? But not quite… You get dancing images of hope, loop, pretonal, pelt, replant, pleat, plate, eater, troop, panther

Oh, but that’s all neither here nor there. This is something other, something rich and strange. Put it on your tongue: “a naw pla theer”, with the “th” voiceless as in theriomorphic and threnody. It has quite a three-step stumble from stress to end, doesn’t it? The /pl/ is like your foot flicking downward as you step too far forward on a stair, that dental fricative /θ/ requires you to thrust your tongue forward right after pulling it back for that reduced central vowel, and then the tense “long” /i/ pitches forward, a bit too much for an unstressed final. But it’s all so soft, almost whispery, with the /l/ partially voiceless after that /p/, and of course the /θ/; at the same time, it has that run of liquid in the /l/ and /r/. It has a plethora of pleasures for the tongue and the ear; as it slips and threads and rustles whsipering, it’s like a Gauguin tiger stalking through the night foliage.

But though it burn bright, this is no tiger, nor even a panther. It lacks the teeth to be any more than a plant eater. I don’t mean the word – the teeth are in that – but the creature it names. Yes, an anoplothere was a quadruped – was not is, as it lived during the Eocene and Oligocene. It was a pachydermatous ungulate of no exceptional size. And, more to the point, it didn’t have claws, horns, or fangs. Thus, from Greek ἀν an “without” plus ὅπλον hoplon “weapon” (whence hoplite) plus θηρίον therion “beast” we get this collapsed concatenation, chewed together like so many leaves: “the weaponless animal”. It’s often referred to by the Latinate version of its name, anoplotherium.

But though we may conclude from its extinction that it had no hope later, it thrived for a time. One need not be red in tooth and claw to poll heather in one’s home plot. It tasted of the richness of its world, the delights of the eyes and tongue, just as we (also sans claws, horns, fangs) may do – though with our words we can also pin down things not only before but even after they have escaped.

Some anoplotheres subsided into gypsum and their bones were found in 1804 – one of the earliest fossil mammals discovered. And yet this beastie is still little known. Oh, but it and its word are among those rare delights one discovers covered in a light layer of dust, well worth the taste. (Read more at “The Camel that Walked on Two Legs.”) We need no plot here, no gravestone, no epitaph, nor even a threnody; in the end is the word.