Monday, June 23, 2008

Elephantine


There were several programs on cable TV this weekend about extinct animals and scientific attempts to extract their DNA. I suspect that the outbreak of such similar programs arose from the fact that a major cable network aired Jurassic Park yet again.

Mammoth was one of the words used. A mammoth was a very large elephant-like mammal, typically hairy with a sloping back and long curved tusks, which became extinct during the late Pleistocene period. The word derives from the Russian, where it seems to have meant earth-horn. Some claim that it owes a portion of its existence (the back end) to the word behemoth.

Behemoth comes to us from the Hebrew. It meant monstrous beast. Scholars believe that this description referred to the hippopotamus. It was used in the Book of Job xl, 15-19:

• “Behold now, behemoth, which I made as well as thee;
He eateth grass as an ox.
• Lo now, his strength is in his loins,
And his force is in the muscles of his belly.
• He moveth his tail like a cedar:
The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
• His bones are as tubes of brass;
His limbs are like bars of iron.
• He is the chief of the ways of God:
He only that made him giveth him his sword.”

The mastodon was also mentioned in those TV programs. It was a large extinct mammal related to and resembling the elephant, but having simpler teeth and lower tusks. It lived from the Oligocene epoch until late prehistoric times. The word came from the French, where it meant breast-tooth. This was because of the nipple-like tubercles present in pairs on the crowns of the molar teeth.

SIDEBAR: mastodons

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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