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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-01-3)

The last column in this series had much to do with food and drink, and at this season of peace, goodwill and over-indulgence it’s not surprising that the word “glutton” should come to mind. However, it came to my mind this time by a different route.

A word that came up in conversation one evening was “ratel”. It’s an Afrikaans word of uncertain origin, common in South Africa, much less so elsewhere. It’s the name of an animal usually called a honey badger by English-speaking South Africans. The name became much better known a couple of decades ago when a newly-developed military vehicle, an armoured troop carrier, was called the Ratel.

The honey badger is a curious beast. It bears some resemblance to the European badger in its colouring, which is black with a broad white stripe from the brow to the tail, and in its rolling gait. This mode of walking is so pronounced that to call someone “badger-legged” in England means that he has legs of unequal length, as badgers were commonly supposed to have. Both the badger and the ratel are related to otters and weasels, and both defend themselves aggressively and fearlessly when provoked.

Among other foods, the ratel has a fondness for honey – hence its scientific name “mellivora capensis”. What made the name appropriate for an armoured vehicle was the ratel’s ability to rob beehives with no apparent regard for the bee-stings it undoubtedly receives. The vehicle’s claim to fame was its V-shaped undercarriage, which defended it quite effectively against land-mines, so the name was pretty apt.

(Just in passing, another, larger, South African military vehicle was given the awkward name of “Casspir”. This turns out to be made up of the initials of the South African Police and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – SAP/CSIR – scrambled into a pronounceable form.)

The invaluable Chambers Dictionary had something interesting to say about the word “ratel”: it’s an “animal of the badger-like genus … related to the gluttons.” Gluttons? There, at last, is the connection to our opening paragraph, but who or what are the gluttons?

The first meaning given is what you would expect, “a person who eats to excess”. The second is an interesting exercise in popular word-construction. A glutton is “a N European carnivore…having dark, shaggy fur: a related animal of N America, the wolverine.”

This poor creature started off respectably enough with the Norwegian name “fjeldfross”, meaning “mountain cat”. But then the Germans got hold of the name and transformed it into “Vielfrass”, which means “large feeder”, and from there it was a short step to the English “glutton”. I don’t think these animals are terribly picky about their food, but to imply that they eat too much seems a little unfair.

Before closing, I want to recommend a little book that I received for Christmas: Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. As you may have guessed from the title (which derives from a rather good joke about a panda), this lady has embarked on a crusade to preserve English punctuation. By all accounts she has been much taken aback by the volume of support she has received, and the book has turned into a surprise best-seller.

Deservedly so – it’s sometimes very funny, always light-hearted, but informative as well. If you didn’t spot anything dubious in the title, perhaps you need to read it for more than its entertainment value!

I wish you all everything of the best in 2004.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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