Daily Archives: June 13, 2012


One of my colleagues reported having heard, yesterday, a politician introducing her boss (the premier) with the words “and so now it is my dubious honour to present…” – and saying it in such a way as to give the sense that she was not making a joke, but actually seemed to think it was a positive thing to say.

Well! That’s a dubious introduction. Was she smoking something doobie-ous? Of course, she might have grabbed the wrong word en passant. But I suspect she had picked up the phrase at some point without actually knowing the word dubious and had made an incorrect inference about it. Sort of like the veteran I once heard at a school assembly in the 1980s referring to World War II as “four score years ago” – he knew four score but didn’t know it meant eighty, not forty.

I do like the word dubious. It’s one of those words, like nauseous or doubtful – that can refer to the subject or object: you are dubious about something that is dubious. It doubles up! It goes two ways in the mouth, too: lips forward on the /u/ and back on the /i/, with tongue in counterpoint, and the consonants bounce between tongue-tip and lips. Likewise, the d and b seem like someone looking both ways, either dubious about something or up to something dubious. Perhaps an IOU is involved.

Dubious may put one in mind of a singer with dubious lyrics – doobie-doobie-doo – or perhaps of someone called Dubya. For me, it brings to mind an early encounter with it in – can you guess? – an Asterix comic. There was a Roman (naturally) character named Dubius Status. He was one of two centurions in Asterix the Legionary – the other was Nefarius Purpus. (I mean in the English translation by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, of course.)

Dubious does come from Latin, of course: dubiousus, dubium, dubius, all “doubtful”. (That b in doubt, by the way, was stuffed in by certain Englishmen who found that doute had come from dubitare and so added the b – as they also did in debt – just as a little reminder of the Latin origin.) In modern English, dubious is a word that most often tends to pair up with a short list of common words.

Status isn’t actually high on the list. But dubious most often modifies positive words that it is there to undermine: distinction (first by a long measure in the Corpus of Contemporary American English), honor (or honour outside of the US), value; less frequently, proposition, claims, assumption, reputation, character. And some more past that, in dwindling number.

And there are also some other teams you will see our questionable word du jour in. For instance, if a Wikipedia article contains claims that seem a bit iffy, it may have the admonition “[dubious – discuss]” put on it. Well, that’s lovely: we have just discussed dubious. Does that mean that Wikipedia is now fully reliable?


I am happy to report that this word is not yet another of those execrable nicknames the British press come up with for well-known figures (e.g. Macca for Paul McCartney and Gazza for Paul Gascoigne, a footballer). No, it’s a word you can play in Scrabble. Alas, it’s a word for an animal that doesn’t exist anymore.

A quagga is – was – a sort of zebra, but with stripes only on the front half; the back half was a solid colour (as though in a quagmire?). The shape of the word itself is only vaguely reminiscent of this for me – the vertical lines in the front-end qu followed by the rounder, non-stripey agga. These beasties were common enough in South Africa for eons, but the farmers didn’t like sharing grassland with them, so they were hunted as pests – and also for meat and hides.

But these beasties were thought to be just a slightly different-looking version of the zebra. So no one really thought about their possibly becoming extinct. A law was finally passed banning hunting for them – about three years after the last one died, in a zoo in 1883, and likely more than a decade after the last one was hunted in the wild. Cue Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” And the quagga becomes quiet.

The name quagga comes from Khoekhoe – that’s the language, though Khoekhoe does look like it’s related to to quagga, with the paired velars and the unrounding vowels, doesn’t it? The Khoekhoe word was ||koaah, which starts with a velar-coarticulated lateral click – coincidentally the kind of sound many people of European origin use to get a horse to start moving – and, after moving through a diphthong that opens from rounded, ends with a velar or other dorsal fricative. It is apparently imitative of the sound the animal makes. I mean made. It came to be brought into Afrikaans, which added a vowel at the end and converted the opening /||k/ into just a /k/. The letter g – or a double g – in this, as in most, cases in Afrikaans is a voiceless velar fricative, as in ach and loch and so on. In English, we change it further, making the gg just a /g/, as we will. So the click and the fricative are gone, and most of us wouldn’t even have known they were there. The wild bray is become something more like a half-submerged duck’s call.

But the animal named by ||koaah and, originally, quagga wasn’t the quagga in specific; it was the zebra generally. Indeed, the plains zebra, one of several species of zebra in existence, is Equus quagga (boy, do I love the look of that term! such a beautiful pattern on the page!). The quagga is – was – a subspecies, †Equus quagga quagga (oh, please stop, I’m having a word-nerd-gasm – everyone please say “equus quagga quagga” five times, and the world will turn backwards). Notice the obelisk at the beginning of the Latin name, that orthographic tombstone: it says “There ain’t no more.”

But some people beg to differ. Just as there are still Khoekhoe and Afrikaans speakers maintaining the phonological originals of this word, there may be the genes of the quagga roaming around the grasslands of South Africa. Some people think the quagga’s genes – or anyway genes that would express its phenotype – may be available, unexpressed, recessive, in related subspecies of the plains zebra. A selective breeding program is underway to turn back the spin of time and bring back the Equus quagga quagga. See The Quagga Project’s website.

And why? Why bother bringing back what is really just another type of zebra? What’s the business case?

What business case? Why does there need to be a financial justification? Money is a means, not an end; it is just a medium of storage and transfer of value; we use it to get ourselves things that we value. Do you like the incessant, infinite variety of life? Do you delight in seeing a word such as quagga? Why would you not delight in seeing such a beast as a quagga, then? Another, and different, beautiful pattern on the grassland, eking out its hardscrabble existence, more than just a hard Scrabble word.

You know, sometimes we just don’t feel like having yet another too-late-realized loss to sing about.