I was just reading my Twitter feed and saw a link to a Tumblr site, Manatee University Strategic Planning, which presents an aspect of humanity using huge manatees: it is a collection of pictures of manatees with, imposed on each picture, a caption of university strategic planning blather. Because why not.
So I thought, “Have I tasted manatee?” And lo and behold I had not (which surprised me). It’s a fun word, one which shows up in ordinary non-marine-biology speech mainly (in my experience) as an opportunity to make a pun on humanity. I’m sure if people could keep manatees as pets a great many of them would be called Hugh. Sort of like how many hairdressing places have names with puns on mane in them. For all I know, there’s a sea-cow-themed hair salon called Mane-atee.
Ah, yes, sea cow. There are two kinds of creatures that are called sea cows, and they look very much like each other, but you can tell them apart by two principal means: their tails are different; and one is found on the Atlantic rim, while the other is found on the Indian Ocean rim and all the way over to the east end of Melanesia. Aside from that, they are related to each other, and more distantly to the elephant and the hyrax – and not so much to other marine mammals. (What is a hyrax? I see haven’t tasted that one either. [Added next day: Now I have.] Note to self. Interim, I leave it to you to discover; you’re on teh interwebz, after all. Hint: it dunt look much like a elephant.)
So which do you find where, and what is the other one? The two questions are related, as their names reveal their places of origin. Manatee comes from manatí, which is a Taino word meaning “breast”. Dugong – the other sea cow – comes from Tagalog, which took it from Malay duyong; both mean “lady of the sea”. So if you know that the Taino were a pre-Columbian Caribbean people, and that Tagalog is spoken in the Philippines, you have that bit sorted out.
“Lady of the sea”? Well, here’s the thing: the manatee and the dugong make up the order Sirenia. They get this name from having supposedly been mistaken for Sirens or mermaids by sailors. Now, dugongs get up to 3 metres long and weigh more than 400 kg. Manatees get up to 4 metres long and weigh up to nearly 600 kg. Compare this to the average artistic depiction of a mermaid or Siren, based on a normal-sized slender woman, thus around 1.6 metres long and 58 kg. Also, the artistic images of mermaids and Sirens tend not to look like, um, a large amount of dirty laundry rolled in a towel. Seriously, if you haven’t looked at the Tumblr I linked to above, do. So if the legends about the sailors are true, I don’t really want to think about what that says about the salt-scored visual acuity and probable desperate concupiscence of the sailors.
Let’s just get back to the words. Manatee isn’t really an especially heavy-seeming word; indeed, it ends with that high, small [i] sound. It has echoes of a variety of other animate life forms, including man-o’-war, monitor, and chickadee. It seems like it could be a name for a small town somewhere up the eastern side of the US, perhaps between Manomet and Chicopee in Massachusetts, or maybe near Manchester, Tennessee. It sounds like a beverage the Israelites might have had in the Sinai desert: manna tea. It has a fair bit of paronomastic potential. As an added bonus, it’s an anagram of emanate, which somehow nonetheless seems quite different as a word.
Dugong, on the other hand, is a big- and heavy-sounding word, in spite of its being shorter than manatee (one less letter, one less syllable, one less phoneme). It can sound like a guy’s name – I’m sure there are guys out there name Doug Ong, and they’re probably pretty sick of sea cow jokes (or else they love them) – and like what a person from Chicago or Newfoundland might call a tam-tam (“Da gong!”), although the officially correct pronuncation is more like “doo gong.” Whereas manatee stays entirely at the front of the mouth, dugong starts on the tongue tip but then immediately moves back and stays back. And it ends on a consonant – one that rings like a gong, but is heavy nonetheless. Its echoes are more of words such as digging and dugout and maybe goldang, and of place names in the Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia. It anagrams to some two-word pairs – gun god, dug nog, dog gun – but no single word. In the basic homeliness and ungainliness sweepstakes, I think dugong wins – which means that in the versatility and prettiness contest, manatee takes it.
But between the actual critters? Look, they’re both mighty homely. But dugongs have that tail that’s like a dolphin’s, while manatees have a rounded, spatulate thing. So I think dugongs win on the style points by a tail.