chevrotain

“Google image search for ‘chevrotain’ was exactly what I needed,” tweeted (twot? twet?) Iva Cheung today.

Why would that be? What is a chevrotain? Is it some way of entertaining with a Chevrolet? Or is it a kind of goat cheese? A herb, crossed from chervil and milk vetch? Could there be some other kind of overt chain between the name and the thing? What sort of inert havoc is this?

Ah, Google it yourself and you’ll see. A chevrotain is what is commonly called a mouse deer. It should not be mistaken for a mouse, a deer, a mouseketeer, or a deer mouse. The difference between mouse deer and deer mouse tells you how such English compounds are headed: they’re headed to the right. The first word modifies the second. A mouse deer is, nominally, a deer of the mouse type, while a deer mouse is a mouse of the deer type.

In reality, though, a deer mouse is just a mouse that is rather agile. (It is not axiomatically dead. Nor is a dormouse or door mouse. Actually, it’s doornails that are dead.) A mouse deer, on the other hand, is a creature that looks like a deer but is much smaller. And is not a deer, though it is an ungulate, which means it walks on its nails (formed into hooves). But these are not fingernails and not doornails; they are deernails. No, wait, they’re deer-mouse-nails. Um. They’re chevrotain nails. Maybe we should, for the sake of the French that is in chevrotain, call them ongles, which is French for ‘nail’ and comes from the same root as ungulate. (Ungulate has nothing to do with undulate; I’ll just wave that one away.)

The name chevrotain is, as I said, from French, and means (roughly) ‘little goat’ or ‘goatlet’. I must say that chevrotains look more like deer than like goats, but whatever. They don’t have horns or antlers, in spite of chevrotain being an anagram of active horn. You’ll be lucky enough to see a chevrotain anyway. They’re quite shy, because what they really look like to many other animals is lunch. They can be as small as 700 grams (a pound and a half), though some kinds get up to 16 kilograms (35 pounds). So they hide, and they mostly keep to themselves (with a bit of twisting and swapping the ch and a for an rt you can get introvert from chevrotain), which has helped keep them going as a species for about 34 million years. They get together to mate, which seems to be their main social activity; female chevrotains can be almost incessantly pregnant, mating as little as a few hours after giving birth (which has also helped keep them going) – but what the heck, the kids are standing on their own feet after one hour. But they have one at a time.

The other thing they have is fangs. Two at a time.

Yup, all chevrotains have sharp little fangs that stick out of the sides of their mouths. They may seem like micro-vampire-deer. But really they don’t suck your blood, nor do they crave hot sin (hmm, or maybe they do; see above about mating). Or anyway no one’s seen them doing so. We will overlook the fact that their taxonomic family name, Tragulidæ, is a bit reminiscent of Dracula, and that the suborder name, Ruminantia, reminds us of Romania, where Dracula is from. Or that they prefer the dark. There are no chevrotains in Romania; they live mainly in Asia and Africa. And they’re ruminants, which means cud-chewers, which means plant-eaters. But should you happen to be sleeping in a forest in Kerala, say, and you feel four tiny hooves treading on or near you…

Naw, never mind, they’d still be less to worry about than larger things like tigers or, worse, people. Chew that one over.

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