“We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe. We cannot die, we cannot hurt ourselves any more than illusions on the screen can be hurt. But we can believe we’re hurt, in whatever agonizing detail we want. We can believe we’re victims, killed and killing, shuddered around by good luck and bad luck.” —Richard Bach, Illusions

I think Richard Bach is the person who came up with the phrase otter of the universe. It has gotten around some since.

When I first saw it, used by someone else, it struck me as a useful play on author of the universe. Many people want to know who the author of the universe is. They want to find out how everything got here. They want to understand the author’s intentions.

When children approach a playground, how many of them ask themselves what things the designer had in mind, and try to do only those things? The ones who do (there may be some) are the annoying ones who suck the fun out of it. They probably grow up to be grammatical prescriptivists or similar dogmatists. Or I should say fail to grow up, because while play is childlike, dogmatism is just plain callow.

Otters don’t show up and try to establish first causes. They just look at what can actually be done. And one thing that can be done is play. Otters reallyliketo play. They make good use of what’s around them. And by good I mean fun.

The first time I saw otter of the universe was actually about the first time I became aware of otters as playful animals. I had always thought of otters as just sleek aquatic animals with a name that sounded like a ruler when you hold one end of it against a desk near the edge, bend and release the free end, and pull the ruler back towards the desk: “ott-tot-tot-tt-tt-ttttrrrrrrrrr.” Wooden, rigid as a rudder, a hard sound at odds with the water in which the animals moved. I oughta have known better.

The word otter is easily played with, after all. It’s practically made for a Dr. Seuss treatment: If an otter bites the butter that a potter put on platter for his daughter, will the potter hit the otter with a putter or a rudder? Will the potter’s daughter titter at the otter’s pitter-patter? Will the bettered, battered otter battle bitterly for butter? Or do otters bite on potters’ pretty daughters’ butter patties just to put on pity parties when they’re battered by the potter with a butter-splattered putter as they skitter to the water?

There’s more than that, though. The word otter comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *udr-, ‘water’. This water has followed many courses: the hydro- root we get from Greek (and that multi-headed water serpent, the hydra); some of the words for ‘otter’ in some other languages (Slavic languages in general have something in the line of vidra; Latin had lutra, which has shown up variously changed in Romance languages); and of course various words for ‘water’, including water.

So this word has flowed around and frothed and leapt like water – and like otters in the water. Do the various flows and changes of words over time seem like utter madness? I’d say they’re more like otter happiness.

Language is my favourite sport. A word isn’t worth much in my world if it can only mean one thing at a time. Rules are made to serve communication, not the other way around, and sometimes what’s being communicated is first of all “Have some fun with this.” And sometimes that’s the best thing to do – whether or not the utterer thought of it, go with what the otterer will do with it. I want to frolic in the stream of consciousness. I want to push language play to the otter limits. And beyond!

And then, at the end of the day, we can rest like otters in the water, floating, holding hands, allowing ourselves even in sleep some play in the stream.

4 responses to “otter

  1. ashtarbalynestry

    It is obviously relevant that the otter is the patronus of Hermione Granger.

  2. You forgot the cognate vodka.

  3. I love the Dr. Seuss treatment. I’ve read it to several people. Well done.

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