Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Getting My Goat

When I think about goats (which I seldom do), I think of two characteristics: they leap nimbly, and they stink.

There is a third element, of course, as I recalled when a friend asked me about the origin of the word tragedy. There is no question that it came from ancient Greek rites that eventually developed into theater, and it is usually said to mean “goat song.”

Speculation abounds as to why goats were involved. One theory says that in song contests, the prize was a goat, or that goats were sacrificed as offerings. Another theory points to performances during religious ceremonies honoring Dionysus. Legend has it that they involved satyrs, creatures who were half goat and half human. Then there are those who say that the -trag- root came not from the word goat, but from the verb to gnaw. Eat your heart out.

Getting back to the prancing abilities of goats, here are a few words that commemorate that feature:
capriccio: in music, a name applied to a lively composition. It meant “just like the skipping of a goat.”
caprice: a descendent of the word above, it signifies a whimsical choice or change of mind. It means a “goat leap.”
capriole: an upward leap made by a trained horse, or a playful jump by a human. It means “jumping like a goat.”

The smelly nature of goats shows up in the following words, among others:
caproic acid: a liquid, fatty acid, so named because of the substance’s goatlike smell.
hircine: one of its meanings is “having a goatish smell.”
hircose: “smelling like a goat.”

The next word never made it into English as far as I know, but the ancient Greeks had a word that would be rendered as tragomaskhalos in English. It meant “with armpits smelling like a he-goat.” Better head for the industrial-strength deodorant section.

Finally, the goatee (the sparse beard form) was named after the goat, the tragus (a bump inside the ear that usually sprouts a tuft of hair) was likewise named after the hairy chin of a goat, and the word butcher originally meant “a dealer in goat’s flesh.”

SIDEBAR: goat breeds

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