11 January 2011

WTN: hippopotamus


The full length of this word rather splutters and pops, doesn’t it? Perhaps like your outboard motor coughing violently as you frantically try to restart it after it has stalled out perilously close to a hippopotamus. Its four-horsepower engine is ceding to the four horsemen of the hippocalypse. You are mere seconds away from having your head bitten off – quite literally (and perhaps littorally, though rather more likely riparially, but not reparably). You can try praying to St. Augustine, but he’s not the patron saint of hippos; he just was from Hippo.

Ah, now, hippo, that’s a word that sounds a bit more apposite for these beasts, doesn’t it? Heavy, round, big in the hips – and everywhere else. It’s a short word, a mere four phonemes, something even Frankenstein’s monster could manage to grunt out of his gullet. But hippos are not thought of as hideous; they seem so big, round, and goofy. Many Canadians will remember a cell phone commercial that made use of the song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” sung by ten-year-old Gayla Peevey (well, she was ten in 1953, when she sang it), with an endearing hippo waddling around.

Well, I’ve got some bad news for you, sunshine. Hippos are the most murderous animals in all of Africa. They’re huge, they can outrun you, and they are, as an article from Science Digest (November 1974, by George W. Frame and Lory Herbison Frame) puts it, wantonly malicious beasts. Oh, and they like to fling their poo around. Actually. At other hippos and whoever else is in the vicinity. (I’m sure it’s mere coincidence that within hippopotamus you can find letters for several words for excrement.)

There are some redeeming factors, though. Not for actual hippos – to heck with them – but for the word, to start with. It actually comes from Greek hippos “horse” and potamos “river”, Latinized slightly. Yet again we must conclude that early Greek explorers, such as there may have been, were terribly nearsighted. I mean, why not river cow? Then the beast would have been a bopotamus. But thanks to this unpleasant jungle ogre, when we see the Greek word for “horse” now elsewhere (for instance in hippodrome), we think of… yes… the unpleasant jungle ogre. Though we probably think of it as big, fat, and cute.

And then there is T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hippopotamus,” which it would be copyright infringement to reprint here in full, I think, but which I can tell you contrasts the earthly, sluggish, frail hippopotamus with the glorious True Church, and, in an ending that carries the same moral as some well-known parables, sees the hippopotamus take wing and sing with a harp of gold –
He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
Well. The hippo may yet be redeemed. It needn’t worry about its image among consumers, meantime; idealized and fictitious hippos can be plenty cute (just like Mickey Mouse isn’t a vermin you want to kill with a spring-loaded trap). Witness, for instance, Hroshi, the sweet hippo created by Elaine Phillips (who suggested today’s word and provided research on the unpleasantness of real hippos). Hroshi is an endearing stuffed sort who has corresponded with an equally endearing, equally stuffed unicorn (see www.harbeck.ca/cww/cww_071128.html – and ebooks.ebookmall.com/ebook/332634-ebook.htm and search.barnesandnoble.com/Hippo-and-the-Unicorn/Lindsie-Haxton/e/9780595436705 for the book).

As to the word hippopotamus, it doesn’t really need redemption; it’s a perfectly fine, fun word, that starts off with a hi, and proceeds into a little game of lacrosse (or is it merely bubble wands?) before finishing off with tamus. It has a nice five-syllable cadence that peaks in the middle. And it’s just itching to be used in a tongue-twister.  Hmmm…
How do you stop an optimistic hippopotamus on the Appomattox? With a copper pot, but take apposite pity: a hippopotamus in captivity is not apt to be optimistic.
How’s that? More of a warm-up than a tongue twister, but ah, it’s a start…

2 Responses to hippopotamus

  1. Re: hippopotamus:
    You should, I think, have mentioned Flanders & Swann’s song “Mud, mud, glorious mud” (which I saw them singing on stage! That dates and places me…)
    Done even better, perhaps, by Rolf Harris: