This word always makes me think of Mini-Wheats.

You see, when the 1982 Hall & Oates song “Maneater” was being played on the radio all the time, Mini-Wheats were what I mainly ate for breakfast, and many was the bite I made into a Mini-Wheat while “Watch out, boy, she’ll chew you up” glided by in the background.

But, then, that song makes me think of another, more recent (2006) song by the same title, by Nelly Furtado. When I first heard it, I thought, “What the heck! Who goes and makes a whole different song by the same name as an existing one?” But actually she’s hardly the first to do such a thing.

Well, it’s not as though the maneater is going to eat Nelly Furtado, whatever her transgressions, after all. In both songs, the maneater is a “she” going after guys – and, hey, as everyone knows, even in tiger country women may walk fearlessly. Tigers are maneaters!

And indeed the next thing I think of is tigers. Especially paintings from India involving tigers stalking people, some of which I recall seeing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which I used to haunt when I lived there. And then I think of sharks. Which means Watson and the Shark, by John Singleton Copley, in the same museum. Which means that now, from the taste of Mini-Wheats, I have moved on to the smell of the MFA: that musty tang of ancient oil paint and biodegrading tapestry mingled with overtones of museum café (all museum cafés smell the same, it seems). I used to go there as much to smell the smell and swim through the art as actually to stop and stare.

Following that, I might wander off into musing on man-eating, often applied to tigers, sharks, et cetera, and thence to the side-show attraction I once passed (which frankly labelled itself “a complete rip-off”) that trumpeted SIX FOOT TALL MAN EATING CHICKEN. Yeah, yeah, watch the hyphen or the absence thereof. That phrase described me eating supper this past Tuesday, and I bet that’s about what people who went in got to see too.

But, on the other hand, I might start musing on the shape of this word. I wouldn’t dwell too long on the available split ma neater; I might think about a manatee (marine but not prone to eating humanity), or I might even consider the partial resemblance in spelling to cotoneaster, a kind of shrubbery. Which would make me wander off into “Bring me a shrubbery” and then from the same movie (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) the lethal rabbit…

I probably wouldn’t muse too much on the etymology of man and eater because they’re hardly at all changed over the centuries in form or sense. Once I got onto the sound of the word, I would think of the double-stress construction, which makes the man last about as long as the eater. It works well musically in the phrase “She’s a maneater.” Which is found in both the songs mentioned above.

Ah, the things that may consume the mind when it is set to wandering. And of course each person’s experience and flavours will vary, partly because experience and influences are personal, and partly because there’s no accounting for taste.

3 responses to “maneater

  1. Being from East Africa, my first image in response to the word ‘maneater’ is not ‘tiger’ but ‘lion’. Try for an account of the maneaters of Tsavo, or even the book of this name by J.H. Patterson. (Tsavo was a spot on the Mombasa-Nairobi line where many railroad construction workers imported from India were killed and eaten). These two felines (now on display in Chicago!) have a link to the news this week: one proposed reason for them to eat an unusually large number of humans was the incidence of rinderpest which had thinned out the stock of available cattle — and rinderpest was finally eradicated last month. (My fingers misled me into typing ‘reindeerpest’ — fortunately, no such disease exists.)

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