What marplot Lancelot might plot to allot a shallot to an ocelot? Certainly not a polyglot zealot!

Well, yes, that’s just silliness. But I do love the slicing and slotting sound of this word, ocelot, that seems to pad through the language with such occult subtlety. It susurrates like a rustling of foliage as the slick, lissome feline slides through – you may glimpse it through the leaves of other words once you look for it. It can cross a lot closer to you than you might think in the forest of your text, by letter or by sound.

O, is this a tyger burning bright? No, subtler, smaller. A panther? Still slighter. A leopard. Yes, Leopardus pardalis, also called the dwarf leopard. But though it may be gnomic in character or dimension, it looks like no gnome. It is rather the lean spotted lizard of cats: the patterns on its skin seem more made for an amphibian (though not an axolotl; those are generally spotless). I have known house cats that approached the size of an ocelot; adult ocelots are two and a half to three feet long (plus tail) and weigh not so much more than a large Thanksgiving turkey. But they are the largest of their genus; the related margay and oncilla are smaller still. Do you want to see ocelots slipping through leaves and streams, and an adolescent ocelot splashing for a fish or salamander? Watch this: Ocelot kitten learns to fish.

I just can’t get over how much I like this word, ocelot. It has a razor-sharp liquidity like Ucluelet, but softer. The claw of the c slices smoothly. The word suggests multiplicity to me, but only because I am aware of Finnish and Hebrew words that end in ot in the plural. I think, too, of Acela, that fast train that slips up the eastern seaboard of the US. I may think of ocellus, a simple light-sensing organ found in invertebrates. Perhaps I see an ocelot sitting as a scribe inserting forgery with utmost economy, a cross between Occam and Ossian.

But how do you locate an ocelot? Look in Central America and in most of South America (except Chile and most of Argentina) – not in the cities, of course, except where they may be kept as pets (some do; Salvador Dalí had a pet ocelot that he called Babou). Could you collate them? Not a lot; they are generally solitary.

And where does this shiny metal word ocelot come from? A gold star to you if you guessed Nahuatl. That language of the Aztecs had a word ocelotl that generally referred to a jaguar but could be used for an ocelot as well (the c in ocelotl stands for a /s/ sound and the tl is a voiceless lateral affricate as in the Tibetan word Lhasa). The Spaniards took it (they knew gold when they saw it) and made it ocelote. In English we allow the loss of the e, allowing us to elocute it with a crisp last stop.

One response to “ocelot

  1. I suspect the “pard” in leopard is cognate with Semitic BaRooD = spotted. The leopard is a lion with spots.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s