The Language Attic: Ovine

by Brenda W. Clough

 One of the pleasures of magazines on the Internet is finding great writers. I am not for instance in the readership demographic for Esquire magazine but now I read their splenetic political columnist Charles Pierce daily. And the other week, denouncing an incompetent politician, he wrote:

“He’s terrified, and he should be. He’s desperately shoring up the bubble that his ovine followers helped him build to insulate him from the truth and from empirical reality.”

Immediately my ears pricked up. A word new to me: ovine! I had to go look it up, but before I did this there was the pleasurable speculation about what it might mean. Perhaps it has something to do with being oval? But we have ‘ovoid’ for that. And ‘oval’ makes no sense in context; the political enablers that Pierce is complaining of may be dolts but they cannot be oval. But those of you who have ever been in the 4H Club already know that ovines are sheep. In veterinary and animal husbandry circles it’s in common use. Here is an EU food safety page discussing ovines and caprines, the sheep and the goats.

We are more familiar with other animals, and so bovine, feline, canine, equine and such are words we recognize more readily. The word ‘asinine’ (of or relating to an ass) has acquired an entirely separate and far more vigorous life and usage. The first definition that kicks up when you put it into a dictionary search is “foolish, unintelligent or stupid.” It’s an insult to be likened to an ass, and the language can always use a another good insult. Also there aren’t as many asses around now in our daily lives to hold up the standard of the old meaning.

The other fun similar word is murine, of or relating to mice. Perfectly fine, except that there are health products with that name. One cannot help but wonder what they use in the manufacturing process. And there is the moral: Whether you’re inventing a fantasy kingdom or naming an ear wax removal product, always put the word into Google, to see if your lovely new word has another meaning that you do not intend!

 

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires.
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