or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, October 15, 2005


This is sort of gross, so you don't have to look if you don't want to; a cat with two tongues. It sounds like a joke, but there's the picture to prove it. (Not that pictures prove anything any more: my mom could probably Photoshop a second tongue into a picture of her cat.)

The article also mentions that this mutated moggy has five toes on each foot. You might well be thinking, "So?", but cats ordinarily have only four toes on their hind feet, so that is kind of strange. Except that it isn't strange at all: multi-toed cats are surprisingly common in some parts of the world, most of them port cities such as Halifax, where I used to live. At least four per cent of all cats in Halifax have a bunch of toes; I've seen twenty-two-toed cats (six on each front paw, five on each back), and the world record is twenty-seven.

The condition is common enough that there's a word for it: "polydactyly", which is Greek, as you may have guessed; "poly-", "many", as in "polygamy", and "-dactyl", meaning "digit" (that is, "finger" or "toe"), plus the "-y" suffix that turns an adjective into a noun. (That suffix is very versatile: it also turns a noun into an adjective, as in "cheeky", a verb into an adjective, as in "slinky", or a noun into another noun, as in "burglary". It's probably at its most useful, though, in the creation of an adjective, because that's how it's popularly used; you can tack it onto a huge number of words to get adjectives--"lizardy", say, or "touchy-feely".)

If you had heard the word "dactylography" but didn't know what it meant--which describes me about ten minutes ago--what would you think it meant? The Greek words for "finger" and "writing"; shouldn't they, assembled into a word, mean "typing", and a typewriter therefore be a "dactylograph"? Makes sense to me, but unfortunately, that's not what it means at all; dactylography is the study of fingerprinting. I'm very disappointed.

A dactyl is also a metrical foot composed of one stressed and two unstressed syllables, as in "paramount". Naming a metrical foot after a toe seems like some kind of poets' inside joke; I guessed that, in fact, it got its name from a finger because both have three joined segments, and the OED confirms this, so I'm batting .500 in guesses today (and it isn't even 4 a.m.).

The word "devilish" is a dactyl, and the Morse code for the letter "d" is also a dactyl--that is, DIT-dah-dah--which is a useful piece of information if you're trying to learn the Morse code on bus trips to and from work. If you happen to be on a bus in Moncton and you see someone holding a small piece of paper, muttering under his breath, "a-LERT, BAS-tard-iz-ing, COP-a-CET-ic, DEV-il-ish, edge, fran-gi-PAN-i", that'll be me.


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