Are penguins amphibians?

Drat! I missed the January 20 event. Got this FAIL Blog entry from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky only on Thursday:

Penguins are a kind of amphibian?

Before I tackle that question, some words about Penguin Awareness Day and about the Some Facts About Penguins text, which begins, in the version above:

Penguins are a kind of amphibian, and their wings, over a period of time have evolved into flippers.

The Day. The Holiday Insights site, devoted to supplying information about holidays (in a very broad sense of holiday), says this about penguin holidays:

Penguin Awareness Day: Always January 20
World Penguin Day: Always April 25th

World Penguin Day coincides with the annual northward migration of penguins. This happens each year on or around April 25th. Penguins do not fly. Rather, they walk, or waddle their way to and from.

Our research did not uncover any information about the origin of Penguin Awareness Day. And, we found no consensus on the date. Rather, we found several conflicting dates in January. If anyone can provide information about this day, please contact us.

Well, some person or organization must have pressed for Penguin Awareness Day. But who, and why? (The calendar is packed with celebrations of particular things. Why, there’s even a site listing American food holidays, one or more for almost every day of the year: National Whipped Cream Day on January 5, National Stuffed Mushroom Day on February 4, today, National Lobster Newburg Day on March 25, and so on. The site doesn’t explain the source of any of these events.)

The text. A number of sites have a different version of the Some Facts About Penguins text, beginning:

Penguins are kind of amphibians, and their wings, over a period of time has evolved into flippers.

and including:

One should never confuse between Penguin Awareness Day which is observed on January 20th and World Penguin Day that is celebrated on April 25th because both of them sound almost the same. (link)

The FAIL Blog text (its source is not specified) is apparently a mostly cleaned-up version of this material, which looks like the work of a non-native speaker of English. (The FAIL Blog text still lacks the final comma bracketing over a period of time, but that’s a common punctuation error in English writing.) In any case, the FAIL Blog text is also suspect; “penguins are a kind of amphibian” might just originate in a simple non-native-speaker error.

Amphibian. The text was submitted to FAIL Blog on the assumption that “penguins are a kind of amphibian” was incorrect. But immediately commenters took issue with that assumption, etymology and ordinary vs. technical usage were appealed to, and a kind of War of the Dictionaries ensued.

Some initial comments:

A: Technically that’s correct.

B: Well, no, it’s not. They’re amphibious, but they’re not amphibians.

C: It is technically. It’s just an outmoded use of the word. The term amphibian has been specified further from it’s original of “both life” to “lives on land and water” to “a cold blooded vertebrate that spends a portion of its life or time in water and on land.”

A’s sense of technically eluded me; my own first quick response would have been much like B’s. But then C introduced etymology — always a bad move in these discussions — and misrepresents history.

To start with, amphibian never meant ‘both life’ (whatever that would be) in English; the English word is built on two Greek roots, the ‘both’ root and the ‘life’ root. OED2 has a 1637 cite for the Adj amphibian, in the sense ‘having two modes of existence’, but it’s an outlier, a one-off innovation. The real history of the Adj and N amphibian begins in the mid-19th-century, with reference to the zoological taxon Amphibia (embracing newts, salamanders, frogs, toads, and caecilians, all having an aquatic gill-breathing larval stage and (typically) a terrestrial lung-breathing adult stage — so that Amphibia was a good coinage for a label for the class): the Adj in 1863, the N in 1865.

Both the Adj and the N remained solely as technical terms in zoology until the 20th century, when the Adj developed an extended sense referring to any amphibious creature (including penguins, crocodilians, and otters, none of which are in the class Amphibia) — cites from 1920 through 1939 — and the N developed a figurative sense ‘a person having two modes of existence or a double character’ (cites from 1902 and 1903) and a more enduring metaphorical sense ‘a seaplane, tank or other vehicle able to operate both on land and in water (cites from 1920 through 1957). Missing from this record are cites for the N in the sense ‘an amphibious creature’.

Commenter C has concocted their own word history, interposing a ‘lives on land and water’ sense (this should be ‘on land and in water’; surely water birds are irrelevant here) between the hypothetical ‘both life’ sense and the well-attested ‘animal belonging to Amphibia’ sense. This is a fascinating story, but there’s no evidence for it in the historical record; ‘amphibious creature’ is not an outmoded sense of the N amphibian. (Commenter C’s proposed history isn’t impossible, just not factual. The history of the N reptile took pretty much the course that C proposes for amphibian: first, an ordinary-language, though elevated, N and Adj (derived from Latin), then the adoption of the N as the zoological name for the class Reptilia, which embraces only certain animals that creep or crawl.)

Commenter D then confounds things further by insisting that technical senses are the only correct ones:

NO!!! A penguin, no matter how hard you try to justify your flawed logic, is not an amphibian and cannot scientifically be described as an amphibian in any circumstance. Like Chris said, amphibious, maybe (although this could result in a number of students incorrectly classing a penguin as an amphibian many years later), but never an amphibian. The fact that some of you say that it is technically correct [but C was referring to ordinary usage] shows the standard of education you received. Here, educate yourself.
 (link to Wikipedia)

Then come the Dictionary Wars. Commenter E pulls out a dictionary definition of the N amphibian that has as one of its senses, ‘an animal capable of living both on land and in water’. This was probably from the Free Online Dictionary, which quotes the entry from AHD4 (AHD5’s entry has this sense as well).

Commenter F then counters with “the Oxford Dictionary”; as we’ve seen, the OED‘s subentry for the N amphibian lacks this sense. Other Oxford dictionaries, for instance NOAD, agree.

So there really is a difference between dictionary treatments of the N amphibian, a difference that suggests the ‘amphibious creature’ sense is a relatively recent semantic extension. Compare mammal, which entered English as an invented technical term for animals in the class Mammalia (‘breast-bearing’, from Latin) and still is mostly confined to this usage, though you can now find cites in which the word is used to convey something like ‘warm-blooded, cuddly’, as when a friendly mammal refers to a person:

Karin, while a bit more high-functioning, has nonetheless settled into a life of lukewarm comforts, working days calming irate customers of a local computer company and spending her nights in “nice little shared nervousness with a friendly mammal in tech support that threatened to turn into a relationship any month now. (link)

A natural extension, but not one that seems to have made it into dictionaries yet.

3 Responses to “Are penguins amphibians?”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Interestingly, for me “Penguins are a kind of amphibian” seems very wrong, while “penguins are kind of amphibians” seems figurative and acceptable, though I’d like the next bit to be something like, “although they are birds, they spend much of their life at sea and under water.”

    Use of articles – the difference between “a kind of” and “kind of” – is horribly frustrating for speakers of non-articled languages. I know many highly educated and intelligent Russians who just cannot master it.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I should add, probably, that there are aspects of Russian, primarily verbal aspect (hahaha) that I can’t master, certainly not in production!

  3. St. Pancake’s Day « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] And then on September 26th comes National Pancake Day, one of those U.S. food holidays apparently invented by the food industry: The calendar is packed with celebrations of particular things. Why, there’s even a site listing American food holidays, one or more for almost every day of the year: National Whipped Cream Day on January 5, National Stuffed Mushroom Day on February 4, …, National Lobster Newburg Day on March 25, and so on. The site doesn’t explain the source of any of these events. (link) […]

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