When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#38]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!

*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?

The Poetry of Spam [#30]

I get a fair amount of spam posted to theAdhocracy. For the most part, it’s easy to spot and formulaic (though admittedly increasingly intelligent). Spam comments either thank me for helping solve a problem or just compliment my writing style/ability/content, then state a place, person or website that will help me “grow my website” (or some-such similar phrase). Occasionally, I get the old-school type of copy-pasta spam that just jumbles together a group of phrases (“Please to be meeting your face in the hot jungle with spider cannons“), but most of the time modern spam is eloquent enough and passable for actual human writing.

I’ve had a few posts that I was 99% sure were spam but which actively addressed something unique to the article or the website in general. A few months ago two comments, on widely disparate posts, both made reference to an error in Internet Explorer when viewing the website. Neither post linked out to or referenced a third party, both used acceptably human names and email addresses, and both were entirely different in phrasing and style, yet addressed the same issue. I’m now certain both are spam (I’ve seen the same comments on other blogs which don’t filter comments) but, weirdly, the problem they were referencing was real. Perhaps it was an issue common to a large number of WordPress websites, which made the message viable, but if the comments contain nothing but a warning… why bother posting them?

Occasionally, though, I get something pretty special. Spam comments which are so clearly not human, yet so weirdly unique, I’m left desperately wanting to know more. One such comment greeted me when I logged in today:

Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.

Wait, what? My spam panel showed me that this wasn’t even a one-off. I have 17 comments, all from completely different email addresses, all pointing at different products on the same popular clothing website (weirdly, each link was a different search result page for “funny nurse” t-shirts). No two comments are the same, but when strung together in order of posting, they almost make a story. I’ve Googled a couple of the phrases used and have found them scattered around various other blogs, so this is clearly a spam bot of some kind, but I have no idea what the origin of the text is. Which is a shame, because I’m now actively interested in the world of Paige, Sasha et al. I want to know what “flashing” is; why there appear to be Roman gods knocking about; why Jade is so happy about the catalogues? It reads like excerpts from a 70’s sci-fi pulp, and I’d love to know why. Why create a bot that produces this? Was it intentional? Is it picking parts from an actual story or are the phrases completely random, pulling from a set list of names, nouns, verbs etc.? Whatever the reason, the spam will be destroyed, but I felt like preserving the weird little tale it created. So without further ado, here is some Spam Poetry:

Paige walked again to Melody’s station and sat down.
Again within the Otherworld Paige and Troy sat in silence.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
Monica, don’t worry about getting Paige’s love energy.
One after the other they walked by means of, it shut behind Amber.
Kelly and Monica appeared with troopers behind them.
Amber took Paige into her arms and hugged her tightly.
Kelly and Monica appeared with Aphrodite behind them.
She locked up and Sasha flashed into the yard.
He waved and flashed, Paige turned back to her buddies.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
The catalogs landed in Jade’s palms and she smiled.
Julie and Zoey dove in and Paige walked over to Wes.
Julie and Jake were there to help.” Paige replied.
Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.