Mi okapi es su okapi

From Bert Vaux on Facebook on 8/10, one in a series of digitally altered artworks:

(#1) [BV caption:] “renaissance portrait of herd of okapis with king’s college cambridge in background, digital art”

My FB response: I’m just fond of okapis. We need more okapi art.

Okapiana. I have to admit that part of what drives my attraction for the okapi is the delicious name; hey, I’m a linguist and a poet and something of a Zippyesque onomatomane (chant with me: okapi okapi okapi), respect my trip. But then there are the beautiful creatures themselves: elegant, powerful, and agile.

The short story, from NOAD:

noun okapi: a large browsing mammal of the giraffe family that lives in the rainforests of northern Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). It has a dark chestnut coat with stripes on the hindquarters and upper legs. Okapia johnstoni, family Giraffidae.

Yes, the giraffe family. You might be thinking of okapis along with zebras and antelopes, and they are all indeed ungulates — hoofed mammals, mostly browsers — but taxonomically of three different affiliations: okapis with giraffes, zebras with horses, antelopes with cattle. Within the world of ungulates, the thing that unites okapis, zebras, and a whole bunch of antelopes (impalas, kudus, elands, nilgai, duikers. dik-diks, springboks, reeboks, oryxes, hartebeests, wildebeests) is their exotic names.

Taxonomically, within the world of ungulates, okapis are in the order Artiodactyla, of even-toed ungulates (including pigs, peccaries, hippopotamuses, antelopes, deer, giraffes, camels, llamas, alpacas, sheep, goats, and cattle) — versus the order Perissodactyla, of odd-toed ungulates (including horses, asses, zebras, rhinoceroses, and tapirs).

Another artistic okapi. From Bert Vaux on 8/10:

(#2) [BV caption:] “depiction in medieval stained glass of okapi in oxford”

From the ensuing FB exchanges:

— Liz Walsh: Who do I contact at King’s to request that okapi stained glass be commissioned for the chapel? (These have all been great, art needs more okapis!)

— Douglas Anderson: The next-to-last appendage in that series of hooves is an Oxford comma.

— AZ > LW: Yes, yes! The Okapi Art Claque must be heard! (Pigeons on the grass alas / Okapi on the veldt oy gevalt)

Bonus: spelling for ungulates. For spelling out words letter by letter, there are established schemes that use keywords to provide clarity in noisy contexts. From Wikipedia, in some detail:

A spelling alphabet … is a set of words used to stand for the letters of an alphabet in oral communication (speech), especially when over a two-way radio or telephone. The words are chosen because they sound sufficiently different from each other to avoid any confusion that could easily otherwise result from the names of letters that sound similar except for some small difference easily missed or easily degraded by the imperfect sound quality of the apparatus.

… Any suitable words can be used in the moment, making this form of communication easy even for people not trained on any particular standardized spelling alphabet. For example, it is common to hear a nonce form like “A as in ‘apple’, D as in ‘dog’, P as in ‘paper'” over the telephone in customer support contexts. However, to gain the advantages of standardization in contexts involving trained persons, a standard version can be convened by an organization.

… Spelling alphabets are called by various names, according to context. These synonyms include spelling alphabet, word-spelling alphabet, voice procedure alphabet, radio alphabet, radiotelephony alphabet, telephone alphabet, and telephony alphabet. A spelling alphabet is also often called a phonetic alphabet, especially by amateur radio enthusiasts, recreational sailors in the US and Australia, and NATO military organizations, despite this usage of the term producing a naming collision with the usage of the same phrase in phonetics to mean a notation used for phonetic transcription or phonetic spelling, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is used to indicate the sounds of human speech.

— the NATO  spelling alphabet: Alfa / Alpha Bravo Charlie … Whiskey … Zulu

— a common American spelling alphabet: Able / Abel Baker Charlie … William … Zebra

That’s the background. Now the funny story. Many years ago, conducting some business over the phone, I was asked, by the young woman at the other end (call her Alice, as in Alice Betty Charlotte), to spell my last name out (so she could take it down accurately; ZWICKY presents grave problems for people at several levels — and then AmE /zi/ for Z and /si/ for C are easily confounded in hearing). So I embarked on one of the standard spelling alphabets:

Z as in zebra

and then, forgetting momentarily what a standard keyword for W might be, went on with the ungulate theme:

W as in water buffalo

Alice giggled with pleasure, so I seized the moment, continuing with

I as in ibex, C as in cow, K as in kudu, Y as in yak

By then Alice was laughing out loud. When I finished, she implored, “Oh, do it again!”

So I did, and then we went on to contract our business. But by then, having done it twice, to my own delight (I think the everyday noun cow smack in the middle of the ungulate exotica is a particularly nice touch) as well as Alice’s, I had it memorized, and can rattle it off without thinking. Spelling for ungulates.

(Yes, I know, ibex and kudu as keywords aren’t much help to people who aren’t familiar with these exotic ungulates; the ungulate spellings are, frankly, more ornamental than utilitarian.)

More ungulation. Since then, I have reflected on how to do the rest of my name, Arnold especially (since I frequently have to spell it out), in ungulate spelling. One possibility:

A as in antelope, R as in reebok, N as in nilgai, O as in oryx, L as in lamb, D as in dromedary

(The lamb of Arnold is the cow of Zwicky.)

I almost never have to spell out my middle name; and in fact I almost never even mention it — because Melchior is just too weird for most Americans, even if I refer to the Three Kings. However, I very often have to supply my middle initial, and the name /ɛm/ of the letter M is supremely confusible with /ɛn/ for N, so I always just say “M as in Michael”, avoiding the Melchior issue entirely.

But but but … now I see that — isn’t it rich? isn’t it queer? — an ungulate spelling of Melchior would be a splendid opportunity to send in the okapis (I know you were wondering, where are the okapis, there ought to be okapis):

M as in musk ox, E as in elk, L as in llama, C as in camel, H as in horse, I as in impala, O as in okapi, R as in rhinoceros

And now my morning is complete.


One Response to “Mi okapi es su okapi”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The lamb of Arnold is the cow of Zwicky.

    I so want to find some meaning for this sentence without the markers indicating that it refers to the words “lamb” and “cow”. (Fortuitously, the quoting mechanism in WordPress removes the markers.)

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