pangolin

Visual: A pretty and pleasant enough word; eight letters, heavier in the front than the back, descenders at the front – one long and straight, one curved – and ascender and dot at the back.

In the mouth: This one uses the whole mouth: it starts at the lips, then after a low front vowel it bounces off the back with a soft and sticky nasal-stop combination, followed by a vowel that could be mid-back rounded but will probably be neutral and reduced; then it’s to the tongue tip for a liquid, a mid-high front vowel, and a nasal. Nasal, stop, liquid, voiced, voiceless, front, mid, back; it’s like a sampler tray.

Echoes: To me, it has always sounded like a name of a place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But no – that’s Gondolin. It might seem like a musical instrument, not so much a violin as a mandolin, right down to the plucking sound of “pang.” It also has a resonance of penguin. And you can hear pang and angle.

Etymology: From Malay pengguling, which means ‘roller’ – i.e., a critter that rolls up.

Semantics: What is a pangolin? It is also called a scaly anteater. But it’s not an anteater. Oh, it’s an ant eater, yes, and a termite eater, and it does look rather like an anteater if you were to replace the shaggy hair on the anteater with sharp scales. But it’s an unrelated beastie; the resemblance is due to convergent evolution (critters that do the same thing tending to become similar in form due to the functional advantages). It got its name from rolling up when threatened. This is not some ostrich move, either; a rolled-up pangolin is a very difficult-to-open ball, and you’ll likely injure yourself trying. And yet people do eat them. Altogether too much, in fact.

When it’s alive and not balled up, the pangolin strolls around on its back legs, counterbalanced by its long tail, not touching its long front claws to the ground. It uses those claws to dig into anthills and termite mounds. And then it simply licks the ants or termites up with its tongue, which is half a centimetre wide and up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) long. The world is its sampler tray. Read more about it at savepangolins.org, and watch a short National Geographic video about it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gz4HXyxcess (OK, it’s not the honey badger, but still). Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie, @sciEditor, for directing my attention to the video.

Where to find it: You’ll find the word where you’ll find the animal – various parts of African and Asia – but also elsewhere, such as where you’re sitting now. I have not seen this word used figuratively, probably because not enough people know what a pangolin is for it to be an effective image. But, now that you know what a pangolin is, you would probably get the sense of a phrase such as pangolin management style – someone who ambles around lapping at small details, and in a crisis balls up and you’ll just hurt yourself if you try to get them involved.

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