Nigayla-ponya, firefox, true panda: its life and times

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They sit there, mostly curled up, mostly asleep, high up in tree-tops, sometimes chewing on bits of plants. But little known is that, deep within their furry little heads, they harbour an unknown desire: to take over the world...

Pet peeve # 113 concerns pandas: it's the generally held notion that 'the panda' is a big, bear-shaped black and white animal. In fact the Giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca is not the original panda: the Red panda is 'the panda', its name being derived (according to some) from the word 'poonya' (others doubt this: the names 'nigayla-ponya' or 'nyala-ponga' are often mentioned in association with the Red panda and are said to mean 'eater of bamboo'). The Giant panda is an imposter, made known to science 48 years later than was the Red panda, and that's why it's called the Giant panda (some people have argued that the best name for it is the Chinese colloquial word Beishung, but it's too late for this to catch on now). Apparently, the Red panda is also known as the Wah (or Wha) on account of one of the noises it makes. I think I'll have to start using this name. Other names include ho-hu and hun-ho, meaning 'fire-fox', bear cat, ye, thokya, woker, sankam, wokdonka (!) and of course Lesser panda.

i-70aa3a3e1fbb0b5d125c5e5c3ee63497-Ailurus stands erect looks scary.jpg

I like visiting (good) zoos and looking at animals (insert argument here about importance of zoos to wildlife conservation), but it can be such a painful experience. Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage, so you have to endure all manner of unbelievable dumbassedness. Red pandas are a constant source of frustration. Toni is particularly fond of them, so we've spent long periods peering upwards with the lazy animals overhead, in the branches. Common responses from other visitors are that 'That's not a panda, pandas are black and white' and 'What is it? It's a monkey'. After all, it's furry and is in a tree, so it must be a monkey [adjacent image shows a Red panda standing erect. I only include it because it looks freaky].

Red pandas were first made known to science after the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich obtained a Red panda pelt and passed it to Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, who then showed the skin at an 1821 meeting of the Linnaean Society (Laidler & Laidler 1992). Hardwicke did plan to describe and name the animal (he eventually published his thoughts on it in 1827), but he was beaten to it: a second specimen, which had been given to Frédéric Cuvier by his son-in-law Alfred Du Vaucel, resulted in the 1825 formal naming by Cuvier of this species as Ailurus fulgens. British workers like Brian Hodgson remarked later how rude Cuvier had been in preventing 'England's reaping the zoological harvest of her own domains' (Hodgson 1847). Chinese literature going back to the 13th century describes the Red panda. The Giant panda, incidentally, wasn't recognized by science until 1869 although, like the Red panda, it had been well known to the Chinese people for centuries [image below by Brian Switek, aka Laelaps, and borrowed from here].

i-b3c0e2e33a5037018996c66694c64c7c-Ailurus f. styani by Laelaps.jpg

After Cuvier's 1825 naming of the species, three additional species were named (A. ochraceus Hodgson, 1847, A. refulgens Milne-Edwards, 1874 and A. styani Thomas, 1902), but of these only A. styani has stood the test of time, albeit demoted to subspecific status (Roberts & Gittleman 1984). It's sometimes called Styan's panda. While the nominate subspecies - sometimes called the Western red panda - is pale-faced, Styan's panda has bold facial markings, and is also larger. The two subspecies do appear distinct, but aren't tremendously different genetically (Li et al. 2005). After looking at lots of pictures of Red pandas in the literature and on the net, it seems that virtually all of the individuals in captivity are, perhaps surprisingly, A. f. styani. In the image at the very top, A. f. styani is at right and A. f. fulgens at left.

Very little was known of the Red panda in the decades following its discovery, so when the first specimen was brought to London Zoo in 1869 it was assumed to be carnivorous like its relatives (the zoo people should have done their research, as Hodgson wrote in the 1840s about how captive pandas mostly shunned flesh of any type and would only really eat rice, milk and eggs). The story goes that the first specimen refused the meat that was given to it, and declined in health. On a whim, the superintendent Papa Bartlett took the poor starving animal for a walk through the gardens, and here it jumped into a flowerbed and began munching on rose buds and Pyrus fruits (Macdonald 1992). Yes, I took this story from David Macdonald's The Velvet Claw, which you'll know well from the recent Tet Zoo articles here and here.

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Today, Ailurus is restricted to the Himalayan region, occurring in north-east India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China where it occurs in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan. It previously occurred in Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai provinces too, and one (possibly doubtful) record from eastern Kashmir suggests a historical range that extended much further west than the modern one (Roberts & Gittleman 1984). However, in distant times close relatives of the Red panda ranged much further, with fossils known from Europe and North America as well as Asia. A modest radiation of species existed: we'll be calling them the ailurines, and they belong within a more inclusive group which we'll be calling the ailurids. That's coming next (this was just the intro)...

Incidentally, this and its followers are more of those looooooooong-promised articles: see here (October 2007) or here (September 2007).

Refs - -

Hodgson, B. H. 1847. On the cat-toed subplantigrades of the sub-Himalayas. Journal of the Asiatic Society 16, 1113-1129.

Laidler, K. & Laidler, L. 1992. Pandas: Giants of the Bamboo Forest. BBC Books, London.

Li, M., Wei, F., Goossens, B., Feng, Z., Tamate, H. D., Bruford, M. W. & Funk, S. M. 2005. Mitochondrial phylogeography and subspecific variation in the red panda (Ailurus fulgens): implications for conservation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 36, 78-89.

Macdonald, D. W. 1992. The Velvet Claw: a Natural History of the Carnivores. BBC Books, London.

Roberts, M. S. & Gittleman, J. L. 1984. Ailurus fulgens. Mammalian Species 222, 1-8.

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That upright panda looks like a guy in a really bad suit, wow. I recently read the Salesa et al.'s Simocyon article, and coupled with this I'm definitely ready for more bizarro ailurines.

Oooh, plantigrade.

If I'm not mistaken, Japanese legend is shot through with magical red pandas, usually converted to foxes and raccoons for western consumption. (Foxes and raccoons also figure, of course.)

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Ah--barely a word on the critter's taxonomy. And the Giant Panda is now considered a true bear, yes? That picture of the standing red panda IS freaky. You can bet that death is on its tiny mind.

" Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage, so you have to endure all manner of unbelievable dumbassedness."

Exactly. This is one of the main reasons I refrain from zoo-going as much as possible, our recent ill-planned trip to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle a regrettable exception. I have written signage for such places, toiled over it, dumbed it down to the recommended grade 5 level, then stood back and watched them, one after another, ignore it. Then they throw a nickel at the alligator's head.

f I'm not mistaken, Japanese legend is shot through with magical red pandas, usually converted to foxes and raccoons for western consumption.

No, the tricksy magical creature in Japanese folklore is the tanuki or "raccoon dog", Nyctereutes procyonoides. You can see pictures of it on Wikipedia under "raccoon dog". It is considerably more dog-like than the red panda.

By StupendousMan (not verified) on 03 Apr 2008 #permalink

Nathan Myers could still be correct: perhaps in some of the translated myths, the "raccoons" are actually red pandas, while in others they are actually raccoon dogs.

*remembers when he was a young teenager wondering why, in Super Mario Bros. 3, there was a Raccoon Mario and a "Tanuki" Mario that appeared to just be another Raccoon Mario

Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage, so you have to endure all manner of unbelievable dumbassedness.

DAMN well put! And even when they look, some people still get it wrong. I remember overhearing someone call the Suricata suricata a "meek-rat".

Now I did not know the red panda is THE panda

" Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage, so you have to endure all manner of unbelievable dumbassedness."

What annoys me is the parents that tell their kids the monitor lizard is a crocodile etc. I've been known to correct them too. The end result is some strange thinks I'm a no-it-all but at least the kid won't be as dumb + ignorant as its parents!

Hi Darren! Let me lower the tone a minute by squeeing, OMG red pands are my fave animal - they're so cuuute! I want one! Em x

Don't be surprised that "way back when" people didn't bother to learn how to care for pandas; at the US National Zoo in Washington DC just a couple of years ago the red pandas were killed when the zoo management had exterminators leave rodent poison all over the pandas' enclosure because years of neglect had left the zoo overrun with rats. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2824167.stm for a bbc article on the fiasco (and related ones, too).

the Chinese names 'nigayla-ponya' or 'nyala-ponga'

What kind of Chinese is that?

the Giant panda (some people have argued that the best name for it is the Chinese colloquial word Beishung

That looks like a confusion of two different transcriptions, and doesn't look similar to the only Mandarin expression for it I know -- xiongmao*, literally "bear-cat".

* Tones later. Safari is too stupid to handle them.

ho-hu and hun-ho, meaning 'fire-fox'

That's more like it: Mandarin huo "fire", hu "fox".

However, in distant times close relatives of the Red panda ranged much further, with fossils known from Europe and North America as well as Asia. A modest radiation of species existed: we'll be calling them the ailurines, and they belong within a more inclusive group which we'll be calling the ailurids. That's coming next (this was just the intro)...

Yes yes yes!!! And then the temnospondyls! :-)

(Foxes and raccoons also figure, of course.)

Raccoons don't figure, of course, because there aren't any outside of North America (except for recently introduced ones in Europe). There haven't been any procyonids in the Old World since the first couple of ice ages. (The raccoon dog is, surprisingly, a canid.)

"meek-rat"

...and I still wonder how Meerkatze* got applied to that animal. In German it designates certain Old World monkey species, and Suricata is Erdmännchen.

* "Sea cat", apparently "cat from across the sea". Never mind the question of how "cat" ever got applied to a monkey. <headache>

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 04 Apr 2008 #permalink

"ho-hu and hun-ho, meaning 'fire-fox'"

Which was the inspiration for the name of the browser I am currently using to view this page...

"[adjacent image shows a Red panda standing erect. I only include it because it looks freaky]."

It looks *particularly* freaky because you can't see the tail. If it wasn't for the perspective making it look like an obviously fairly small animal, i really would have thought it was a human in a suit. Can it actually walk bipedally like that?

I love "meek-rat". I think that's what i'll have to call them from now on...

(Erdmaennchen (don't know how to do umlauts on this keyboard) sounds like it ought to mean "gnome" or "homunculus" or something... "earth/ground" + "man/human being" + diminutive suffix, roughly "little manlike thing of the earth"... what do people think this animal *is*, anyway?)

"Erdmaennchen (don't know how to do umlauts on this keyboard) sounds like it ought to mean "gnome" or "homunculus" or something... "

In some German legends, it does. I know of a story involving subterranean gnome-like creatures called Erdmaennchen from Wachtendonk in the Lower Rhine area, and a Google Books search shows similar stories from Hagen/Westphalia and Zurzach/Switzerland.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 04 Apr 2008 #permalink

> * "Sea cat", apparently "cat from across the sea". Never mind the
> question of how "cat" ever got applied to a monkey.

It has been suggested that the German word "Meerkatze" is a corruption of the Sanskrit term "Markata", meaning monkey.

OMG, I HATE to run across people in the public who insist on passing on incorrect info to their kids. And it's not just the parents...last year while in the Museum of Natural History in NY, I overheard a docent leading a group of tourists past the Apatasaur (I think) and telling them "This dinosaur was bipedal...and that means that it held it's legs straight under it's body like a horse instead of jutting out the side like a lizard." I must have had that "smacked with a brick" look on my face, because my friend grabbed my arm and said "let it go" as he dragged me away.

I was checking out some California newts at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens last week, and a mom came by and informed her child that "those will be frogs someday!" *Head desk*

P.S. Where do I get a red panda to play with and cuddle and put little novelty hats on? Or are they like sea otters in that, despite looking like the fuzziest, friendliest little guys you could wrap your adoring arms around, their teeth and jaws are capable of tearing your face off?

"There haven't been any procyonids in the Old World since the first couple of ice ages. "

David Marjanović -- what procyonids are these??

Few people can be bothered to go to all the trouble of raising their heads 60 cm, or walking 2 m to the left, to look at the signage.

Er. 60 cm is a hell of a way for a short-necked species like our own to raise its head. Unless you were suggesting zoo visitors should carry portable step-ladders around with them?

Er. 60 cm is a hell of a way for a short-necked species like our own to raise its head. Unless you were suggesting zoo visitors should carry portable step-ladders around with them?

Ha ha ha, my sides. It's my understanding that, in the English language, 'to raise one's head' means 'to elevate the skull such that the basicranial axis is raised anteriorly relative to the horizontal (or frankfurt) plane, and the atlanto-occipital junction is extended'.

Oh yeah - it's the 60 cm bit you were referring to. Well, then, raise their gaze, or whatever, by 60 cm.

It has been suggested that the German word "Meerkatze" is a corruption of the Sanskrit term "Markata", meaning monkey.

FWIW, the Swedish form is markatta. My lexicon derives it from Meerkatze (katta being the Sw. equivalent of G. Katze).

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2008 #permalink

Despite being mainly vegetarian, red pandas are capable of hunting - here at Bristol a few years ago the keeper doing his morning round discovered our female had managed to catch a mallard that had landed in her enclosure looking for a nest site and was busy eating it. Their natural staple of bamboo leaves is so low in energy that they cannot afford to be as specialist as giant pandas, so they look for more calory dense foods where possible - even so they only have small litters - usually 2 cubs maximum

"Erdmannchen" (that's MY solution to the umlaut problem!) sorta makes sense-- they come out holes in the ground, and then stand erect to look around. I can see someone thinking they were kinda like gnomes (though much, MUCH, cuter)... "Meerkat" always puzzled me, since they aren't at all aquatic (they live in the Erd, not the Meer, dammit!): the suggestion that "Meerkat" is a corruption (folk-etymology) of some name in a non-European language makes lots of sense!

What rather bugs me, though, is "Ailurus": that's Greek for CAT, and pandas are on the doggish rather than the cattish side of the Carnivora, aren't they? I suppose it's the short (by comparison to real foxes) snout, giving them a roundish-looking, and so cattish-looking, head. The fourth photo (the one from Brian Switek) has a head and face definitely reminiscent of (cartoon if not real) cats. Hmmm. Looking at the rest of that photo, the stance and the thick legs look a bit ursoid-- I thibnk that phot for the first time makes me see why they might be called "Bear Cats"!

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 04 Apr 2008 #permalink

Tones and characters: 熊 xiǒng "bear", 貓 māo "cat" (not to be confused with 毛 máo "hair" -- that's the surname!), 狐 hú "fox". (No, except for 毛, I don't know the characters by heart, I used Wikipedia as a dictionary.)

what do people think this animal *is*, anyway?

Well, it digs in the earth, and it keeps standing up. The act of assuming a bipedal position is commonly called Männchen machen when dogs, rabbits or marmots do it.

I know of a story involving subterranean gnome-like creatures called Erdmaennchen

I had no idea. The German-speaking area is just too big. :-)

It has been suggested that the German word "Meerkatze" is a corruption of the Sanskrit term "Markata", meaning monkey.

Oh! This makes perfect sense! (And so does the reversal in Swedish, LOL!)

what procyonids are these??

Those that used to occur in the Old World? I have no idea, ask Darren :o)

"Erdmannchen" (that's MY solution to the umlaut problem!)

Except it's not a solution, because it obscures the pretty drastic difference in pronunciation and thus often meaning (bird/birds: Vogel/Vögel; blockhead: Dussel; river that runs through the former Neander valley and the city of Düsseldorf: Düssel). The convention is to use ae, oe, ue, which are almost unambiguous.

Unless of course you use something other than a misconfigured Linux distribution. In that case, you can copy & paste from the character table. Windows: Start --> Accessories (or whatever it's called in English) --> System Programs --> Character Table. Mac: Click on the flag near the top right corner of the screen, and then "Display Character Table".

What rather bugs me, though, is "Ailurus": that's Greek for CAT

Well, yes, but originally it meant "ferret". Before cats were imported from Egypt, the Greeks used ferrets to keep their mice under control, and then they simply applied the name to the new animal with the same function. Perhaps Cuvier was aware of this.

Stranger things have happened. The Navajo word for "horse" is shifted wholesale from "dog".

Alfred Du Vaucel

Lowercase d, except at the beginning of a sentence. French doesn't make an exception even though it's part of a surname.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 05 Apr 2008 #permalink

While it is indeed interesting to jump through all sorts of linguistic and logical hoops over the origin of the name "meerkat", may I simply point out that "Van der Meer" is a Dutch surname?

The idea of "meerkat" coming from some Boer's name seems to be a bit easier to swallow than some convoluted story involving confusion with a monkey species, or borrowing a word from Sanskrit.

By J Stoddard (not verified) on 05 Apr 2008 #permalink

The idea of "meerkat" coming from some Boer's name seems to be a bit easier to swallow than some convoluted story involving confusion with a monkey species, or borrowing a word from Sanskrit.

Not at all. Who is this particular van der Meer (literally "from the lake", AFAIK, BTW), and what is his name doing on a "kat", whatever that is?

Perhaps I should mention the German word Hängematte, literally "hang-mat", which, although fitting just fine, is nothing but a corruption (via 16th-century Dutch hangmak and hangmat) of the same hamaca that English hammock derives from. Folk etymology, sorry, reanalysis happens.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 05 Apr 2008 #permalink

David Marjanovic--
(i) Point taken about the umlauts (I wasn't being entirely serious there)
(ii) Thanks for info about the idiom "Maennchen machen"! I think it nails down why meerkats get called "Erdmaennchen" (and its an idiom I will be reminded of next time I am in America and see a squirrel!)
(iii) Given that "ailurus" ("ailouros," since at least Greek doesn't use umlauts!) denoted both cats and ferrets, are you sure the application to ferrets came first? "Ouros" means tail, so I'd expect a word like "ailouros" to get coined for an animal with a long tail that it swishes dramatically when it's about to do something aggressive, and not for an animal with a much less prominent tail. Still, doesn't matter which came first: as long as if could apply to either cats or ferrets, that's enough of an explanation of how it got chosen for the firefox, which does look more like a (fat, furry, longtailed, and MUCH cuter than average) ferret.
Thanks for the very informative response!
PS: and sometime or other I'm going to quote your "Folk etymology, sorry, reanalysis happens"!

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 05 Apr 2008 #permalink

"Ouros" means tail

I'll try to find out if that's true -- I don't know Greek, but oura means tail.

are you sure the application to ferrets came first?

That's what I read, and domestic cats do come from Egypt. Ought to be explained somewhere online; perhaps I'll find it.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

The Greek lexica over at the Perseus Project homepage lists several meanings of ouros (including "aurochs"!); the one that seems most likely wrt to cats or ferrets is "guardian".

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

(and no, "tail" or the like isn't among them)

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

to Rebecca...

" I was checking out some California newts at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens last week, and a mom came by and informed her child that "those will be frogs someday!" *Head desk*"

I can top that! Whilst flipping through some television programming one day my brother and I ran across some rodeo footage. My oh-so-challenged sister-in-law asked us what we were watching. My brother responded with "Bareback riding"...

....wait for it...

...so she says "That's not a bear, that's a horse."

Never as an adult have I been so close to loosing bladder control.

The name beishung could be shortened (and/or misunderstood) for hÄibáixióng é»ç½ç (literally "black and white bear"), an alternative name for the usual dàxióngmÄo 大çç« ("large bear cat"). Names such as nyala-ponga, although clearly not from Chinese, may be from one of the numerous other languages spoken in China.

Well... at least the preview looked great.

Goofy stuff overheard in zoos-
In the nocturnal house in Seattle's zoo the first exhibit past the entrance as one's eyes were still adjusting to the dark included African animals. In the gloom the animals imediately apparent were springhaas bouncing about. People would stop, marvel at the odd critters, look up at the sign saying "African porcupine" (which creatures were quietly and almost invisibly wedged under the walkway), and marvel further how African porcupines looked like kangaroos and had no quills. Going another five feet around a corner would have revealed the springhaas sign, but the first sign generally satisfied quite a few customers.

Darren, better get your ass over to Wikipedia and do some editing:

Giant Panda From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Panda" and "Panda Bear" redirect here.

Oh, and the online consensus seems to be that the word is Nigalya Ponya, that it means 'eater of bamboo', and that it's Nepalese. (A quick-and-dirty check suggests that this is about right: Nigalo is the Nepalese word for the bamboo species Drepanostachyum intermedium, for example - and with a case change, that could easily be nigalya.)

Well... at least the preview looked great.

Never preview. Preview is of evil.

Either that, or you weren't using Internet Explorer, har har. IE works!

I think you mean hēibǎixiǒng and dà xiǒngmāo.

And I forgot 火 huǒ "fire".

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 08 Apr 2008 #permalink

Well deciphered...

And to think that I had just weaned off IE...

David M. wrote:

Stranger things have happened. The Navajo word for "horse" is shifted wholesale from "dog".

True in a large number of Native American languages. Not too surprising, considering that dogs would have been the only domesticated animals the people knew of and that horses took over many functions originally performed by dogs (especially pulling loads).

By Nick Pharris (not verified) on 13 Apr 2008 #permalink

And to think that I had just weaned off IE...

To be fair, I'm talking about IE for Windows. IE for Mac is execrable.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 13 Apr 2008 #permalink

Looking at the rest of that photo, the stance and the thick legs look a bit ursoid-- I thibnk that phot for the first time makes me see why they might be called "Bear Cats"!

To add to the language mix, in Swedish they are "Cat bears" (Kattbjörn)

I did learn that the lesser or red panda was a native North American animal, that lived in The Trumpetlands of what is now Central Ohio. It was omniverous there. It used to climb up high in these huge oversized (fantastically flowering) vines and low over swamps that bubbled up with both springs and hot spots.

It likes honey and bee larvae - anything to do with bees and was often seen up high in the high honeysuckle trees proably devouring the wild hives, the queen plant of the bee plantations. Sometimes it ate fruit from the European fruit trees, which were very high. It was considered a junk animal, capable of transmitting rabies, that it invaded homes in search of food, and that it lured children away with its prettiness. The females were not chaste. The Trumpet Lands were very dangerous. The top line predator was a kind of black jaguar. The settlers wanted mourning doves and bluets, not a whorish little animal.

By Cindy Donahey (not verified) on 08 Feb 2010 #permalink

Huh?

Sure, there were fossil (Miocene-Pliocene) ailurines in N America, but not in human times (much less after European settlement!)

And there is no such thing as the Trumpetlands of Central Ohio.

By William Miller (not verified) on 08 Feb 2010 #permalink

Cindy, you've been dreaming. What you write reads like a dream, and none of it is true.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

David, you say that like it's a bad thing. Anything that deposits unexpectedly an expression like "bluets, not a whorish little animal" must not be too severely excoriated.

Ah, the fabled Trumpetlands, transported wholesale from the Old Country without dropping a clod.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

Meerkat is the name of the monkey groep Cercopithecini in Dutch.
The Meerkat of Meerkat's manor (Suricatta)is called Stokstaartje.
From the Sanskrit "Markata", meaning monkey, rather than from (translation) Lake Cat (Dutch) or Sea Cat (German).