“Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls,” Yann Martel writes in Life of Pi, “a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions.”
The sound, if you’d like to hear it, can be heard at www.lairweb.org.nz/tiger/Tiger3a.wav; you can see a tiger walk by and do it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeUVut0iXvY. It seems to me that the /pr/ at the beginning of this word can make a similar sound. You may note a resemblance between the pru and purr, and perhaps between the prusten sound and purring; however, they’re not quite the same thing. Sonically and physiologically, I’d say prusten more closely resembles a horse’s snort.
The word, though, has the feel of one of those odd specialist words that you encounter only in limited contexts, but that somehow you feel you are expected to know – a word that its users will feel certain is the correct term, though it is generally unknown, perhaps because its object is not well known either. But how unknown is this word? It’s not in the Oxford Engish Dictionary. It’s not in the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s not in Merriam-Webster. No, but you will find it in references to tigers in various articles. And you will find it in Wikipedia – in English, French, Spanish, and Catalan.
Not in German, though. Would you have thought that this word seems like a German word? Oh, indeed so. That en makes it seem like a plural noun or an infinitive verb – either of which would be oddly converted to a singular mass noun in English. It also seems like a family surname (in fact, it is one, too) or a girl’s first name (perhaps a cross between Prudence and Kristen). Or perhaps a town in Germany somewhere (nope).
But it is a German word. You may be interested to know that it also has something in common with salsa and chai. What? All three words have taken on a more specialized meaning as loans into English than they have in their languages of origin (they’re not the only ones – and it happens in other languages, too: smoking is Polish for a blazer, for example, from smoking jacket; in German, Handy means a moble phone). Salsa is just Spanish for “sauce” and chai is just Hindi for “tea” – although it is true that what we call in English salsa and chai is a version of sauce and tea, respectively, popular in the source countries.
Prusten, on the other hand, is a German verb for “snort” – an infinitive verb, borrowed as a noun into English (what kind of ignoramus would do that? perhaps the same kind as borrowed the Latin conjugated verb ignoramus, meaning “we don’t know”, as a noun into English – but that happens often enough; and after all, the Germans borrowed an adjective to use as a noun for a mobile phone). But what we call prusten in English (and, at least per Wikipedia, in French, Spanish, and Catalan) is done by jaguars, tigers, and some kinds of leopards, none of which are indigenous to Germany.
I imagine the word was first used by a German zoologist describing the sound, and it got picked up and borrowed by zooligists in other languages who preferred to use a distinct new word rather than just call it snorting, which has coarse and derisive overtones anyway. “Snorting? Please! That’s prusten!” Rather like “What do you mean, ‘Pass the sauce’? This is salsa!” or “This is no ordinary tea. This is chai!”
But there is actually another English word you can use – or two, in fact: chuffle and chuffing. And those seem perfectly English. They almost seem undignifed, indeed, looking as they do like a cross between chuffed and shuffling. And chuffle is in the American Heritage Dictionary. So why do we need prusten? I don’t know. Perhaps it sounds more formal, technical. But I’m sure it will spread and end up in the dictionary. Life of Pi is a popular book, after all.