Daily Archives: September 3, 2009


Whatever it is, it sounds macabre. You can almost hear it licking its chops with an evil purr. It seems made, too, for baring fangs: the mouth begins with a pucker but through two lip-smacks the lips draw back, and the tongue tip, which starts in an affricate, lashes back to a liquid. And surely there is something otherworldly about it – it sounds like a dark cousin of abracadabra. Or perhaps some Puerto Rican curse.

Well, it is a sort of curse in Puerto Rico, at least if you ask some people there: a curse of livestock. They find bunches of their creatures dead, drained of blood through puncture wounds. The culprit: the goat sucker, chupacabra – chupar means “suck” and cabra means “goat” (you may be reminded of capricorn, which is from Latin for “goat-horned”). Sightings crop up here and there, not just in Puerto Rico but in Texas, Maine, Russia, the Philippines, the National Enquirer… It looks like a mean hairless coyote, maybe (some dead animals found and reported in as examples turned out to be coyotes with nasty cases of mange), or else a reptilian being with a ridge of sharp spines down its back, a forked tongue, large fangs, a sulfuric smell, an unearthly screech, and perhaps basilisk-like eyes, and a tendency to saltation – jumping up to 20 feet. Well, anyway, whatever it is, it ain’t pleasant.

No actual specimen of this little vampiric demon has been caught and verified yet. But with a creature like this, that only strengthens its ability to terrify, for what is more frightening than the unkown? Especially an unknown that is sort of like a refugee from Jurassic Park with a taste for blood in large quantity. This isn’t like bigfoot; you’re not so likely to hear “Don’t go out; bigfoot might get you.” Bigfoot doesn’t have a reputation for this kind of nastiness. But kids in Puerto Rico and Texas run the risk of being terrified by the threat of chupacabra. Which, on reflection, might put them right off their Chupa Chups.

This isn’t a mythical beast of long standing, though, even if it seems born of ageless tradition. It was first reported within the last two decades (but its franchise spread quickly: soon after the first incidents, reports cropped up in ever widening circles – hmmmm – throughout Latin American and beyond). And the name, which may prima facie seem to have crawled forth from some mediaeval grimoire, was invented shortly thereafter by Silverio Pérez, a Puerto Rican comedian.


Purge from your mind the idea that this word may refer to a heretical sibling. Oh, the history of the Cathars is one rooted in catharsis, to be sure: they saw themselves as purged of sin, and so more pure, and they in turn were purged from the church – no one likes a holier-than-thou, and no one likes them less than other holier-than-thous. That engenders a transactional mismatch, each party playing the parent role to the other. But catharsis refers more often in modern English to a purging of the emotions, a release more in line with Freudian theory than with transactional analysis. It can also be used in reference to Aristotelian aesthetic theory, in an interesting contrast: whereas in psychotherapy the catharsis is accomplished by reconnecting the errant emotional reaction to its original impetus, in Aristotle it’s accomplished instead by reacting to a fictional surrogate, a sort of inoculation. And if you think that that is all, er, crap, well, that leads us to the physical sense, of which no more need be spoken here.

But is this word so purgative in its phonaesthetics? The experience of saying it is reminiscent perhaps of spitting a watermelon seed, or rather trying once to spit it and then having to hiss a remaining bit off the tip of the tongue. But all those soft sounds seem so pure, like an alabaster statue of, well, someone named Catherine, perhaps. And fair enough: although the ultimate source of Catherine is Aikateriné, the name of an early Hellenic saint, its form has long been influenced by katharos, Greek for “pure” and the ultimate source of our word du jour. And although catholic and cathedral also have different sources, we can see something so ecclesiastically white and pure in the overtones of cath that even cathode ray tube may seem softened by it. Certainly it sounds so much smoother and nicer than purgation, with that urg in there all too iconic. And the is at the end keeps it classically Greek, all white and pure. Except that the classical Greeks actually painted their temples and statues; they’re white now just because paint comes off. Does that seem like heretical revision? In this case – as in many others, notably including some prescriptivist notions in English – the “return to purity” is the real revision, an imposition to be shed like so many cat’s hairs.