This seems an overly vivid word, a party of o’s and v’s and i’s, almost a parody. Seven syllables, fifteen letters, an even alternation of vowels and consonants, like a typographical topiary. It revs three times with the teeth on the lip and then it breaks free.

But how may we read it? It seems almost a numerical puzzle: are those Roman numerals, V for 5 and I for 1? I for one am not so sure; 0 (zero) is not a Roman numeral. Perhaps one or more of those v’s is actually a logical disjunction operator, “or”? As in “ovo or ivi”? (One looks like a bike, the other like a guy with ski poles.) Or “o or 0 or i or 1”? Are we trying to reach some kind of parity here?

Can you tear it apart, morphologically? This is the most perspicuous version of the word; it is also seen as ovovivipary and ovivipary. But I’m sure you all remember the famous telegram that cracked the tangle of the platypus: “Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.” Which is to say, playtpuses and echidnas lay eggs with big yolks. Telegrams were charged by word. The word with the charge in this case, for us, is oviparous – giving birth by egg. This contrasts with viviparous, giving live birth.

So, uh, ovo+vivi+parous, or ovo+vivi+parity for the noun… egg-live-birthing… How does that work, exactly? Well, the embryo gestates in an egg inside the mother. It’s not like gestating in a placenta, with nourishment given directly from the mother; the nourishment comes from the yolk in the egg. But the egg is not laid and left to develop in a nest or elswhere; the nest is the mother herself. So you start with eggs o o and then they hatch into little ones i i…

And what kind of creature does this? Assorted fish, reptiles, and invertebrates, mainly. Some sharks do it. Sometimes it’s more complex than that, too. The little shark (v v v) eggs (o o) grow the little sharks (ovivipary … ovovivipary … ovoviviparity) until at last one (i) hatches… and, no longer having the yolk, needs food. So it eats what’s available: the other eggs, its would-be siblings. (This seems like viviovorapacity!) It brings down the overcapacity to a parity, bite by bite (v v v). You can see the melee of twists and bits tearing apart in parit until finally it is ready to swim free (y)… As with so many things, it wins by being primus inter pares.

Thanks to @megoc and @NemaVeze for suggesting this.

3 responses to “ovoviviparity

  1. And (for Jasper Fforde fan @megoc) that means a shark’s grandchild is first among sequels.

  2. I have loved this word since high school biology. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik

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