olinguito

Today’s word brings us the latest cute animal squee and zoology nerdgasm. A bit over a week ago, Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian announced the first discovery of a new mammal of the order Carnivora in the Americas in 35 years. It’s related to raccoons, and it’s small (weighs about a kilogram) and cute and lives in trees and has a teddy-bear face. Really, it’s very cute. And they just discovered it?

Well, they just discovered it was a new species. They always thought it was just another olingo, maybe smaller than most and with a shorter nose. They didn’t twig when one failed to breed with olingos in the zoo. You know, any species of animal can have so much variety – look at people, eh? Not to mention dogs.

Imagine, under their nose the whole time. Like the janitor who turns out to be a kung fu master. Or like a furry little Yentl. So they had these creatures hanging around in the trees of Colombia and they’d kind of always seen them and everyone just thought they were olingos – or, if they were really being sloppy about it, just another kind of kinkajou. No one, no one seems to have had a separate name for the little beasties. So what to call one? Hmm, why not “little olingo”? In Spanish, that’s olinguito.

So where does the name olingo come from? Quichean ullimko, ‘loud yeller’ – they’re noisy critters. That makes our new tropical arboreal teddies little loud yellers. But not old yellers – they’re orange-brown, for one thing.

But, ah, look at what happens when you make the animal smaller and cuter: the name becomes larger – and cuter. Just add that it (and the orthographical u) to olingo and what you get, olinguito, is nearly symmetrical. It has the o and o like cute round little ears, the li nearly mirrored by the it, the u just a rotated version of the n, and in the middle like a nose the g. When you say it, your mouth makes a similarly near-symmetrical gesture. It starts and ends with tongue back and lips rounded for the /o/, and between that the tongue touches tip, back, tip, with high front vowels between. The /l/ and /t/ are a little different, to be sure, and the nasal-to-stop of the /ŋg/ is not symmetrical. But still, it’s so pretty, so near-balanced. It just adds a bit of wordsquee to the nerdsquee. O lingo, what treasures thou bearest in thy branches!

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