Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/September 1902/The Story of a Word - Mammal

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THE time for the final consideration of words commencing with M for the great English Dictionary is now very near at hand, and I venture to offer suggestions respecting one in very general use whose etymology has been misunderstood and erroneously stated in all the published English and American dictionaries; that word is mammal or mammals. I have already explained the significance of the word in a periodical devoted mainly to ornithology (The Osprey), but probably few readers of The Popular Science Monthly are acquainted with that magazine and the data are here given in another form, and with many additional facts.

In the great Century Dictionary, a deservedly esteemed work, and which may generally be implicitly trusted, the etymology of mammalia is given as 'NL. (sc. animalia), neut. pi. of LL. mammalis (neut. sing. as noun, mammale), of the breast: see mammal,' and, under mammal, we have 'a. and n. [ OF. mammal Sp. mamal Pg. mamal, mammal It. mammale, n.; < NL. mammale, a mammal, neut. of LL. mammalis, of the breast, <L. mamma, the breast].'

All this is misleading, if not erroneous. The name mammalia was first coined and used by Linnæus in 1758, and was formed directly from the Latin; it had nothing to do with French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian words. The concept of which the Linnæan word is the expression is as remote from a popular notion as could well be, and even the necessity for the word (or an analogous one) can be appreciated really only by the educated or, pro tanto, the scientifically educated. Buff on and Pennant, for example, could not realize the reason for its use.

It is noteworthy that in the Century Dictionary even the very word that might have given the clue to the formation of mammal is cited and yet the excellent professional etymologist who worked on it was not guided into the right path. With the hint given to him, he failed to see the point. Evidently, then, the etymology is not as obvious as it might seem to be.

Often, indeed, in looking over etymologies, we have been impressed with the insufficiency of philological learning alone for the solution of knotty questions. A living knowledge of the objects named is often requisite for a full understanding of the significance or aptness of the names.

It was one of the happiest inspirations of Linnæus to segregate all the mammiferous animals—the hairy quadrupeds, the sirenians, and the cetaceans—in a single class. No one before had appreciated the closeness of the relations of the several types, and there was no name for the new class (or concept) as there was for all the others.[1] A name, therefore, had to be devised. It was another happy inspiration that led Linnæus to name the class mammalia. Those who are familiar with the works and ratiocination, and especially the nomenclature of the great Swede, may divine his thoughts and share with him in the execution of his ideas, although he did not give eytmologies. For those 'animalia' which are animals par excellence he would coin a name which would recall that fact. (Animal, be it remembered, is often used in popular converse in the sense of mammal.)

The name in question was evidently made in analogy with animalia. In animalia, the principal component was anima, the 'vital principle' or animal life. (Old Nonius Marcellus well defined and contrasted the word—'animus est quo sapimus, anima qua vivimus.') The singular of the word was animal. In mammalia, the essential component is mamma, breast; the singular should be mammal. The terminal element (-al) was coincident with rather than derived directly from the Latin suffix (-alis) which expressed the idea of resemblance or relationship; anyway, it was used in substantive form, and the idea of possession or inclusion was involved, as in the case of animal, capital, feminal, tribunal—all well-known Latin words. In fine, a mammal is a being especially marked by, or notable for having, mammæ.

The truth embodied in the word was almost immediately appreciated by naturalists at least, and the class of mammals has been adopted ever since the Linnæan period by zoologists. Naturally the new Latin name was to some extent replaced by names in the vernacular tongues of most nations.

In the accommodating English alone the Latin word was adopted with only a change in its ending, and thus the class name mammals was introduced, and the singular form—mammal—followed as a matter of course, and by chance (or rather the genius of language) exactly coincided in form with the singular of the Latin word.

Not only had the name nothing to do with the alleged derivative Latin words. It was not admitted at all into the vernacular speech of France, Spain, Portugal or Italy. The naturalists and lexicographers of those countries failed even to appreciate its etymological aptness and beauty. First, the French had to introduce a new word to correspond—mammifères or the breast-bearers. The other Latin races followed; the Spanish and the Portuguese with mamiferos, and the Italians with mammiferi. None of the words quoted in the Century Dictionary are even given as nouns in the ordinary dictionaries of those languages—not even in the great dictionary of Littré. Littré, however, has the words mammalogie, mammalogique and mammalogiste.

Of course the Germans coined a word from their vernacular—Säugethiere or suckling animals: the cognate nations imitated; the Dutch with Zoogdieren, the Swedish with Däggdjuren, and the Danes and Norwegians with Pattedyrene.

The first writer to use the English word Mammals to any extent was Doctor John Mason Good. In 'The Book of Nature' (1826), in the second lecture of the second series, 'On Zoological Systems,' he specifically introduces it. Quadrupeds is not appropriate 'and hence it has been correctly and elegantly exchanged by Linnæus, for that of Mammalia,' and he concludes, 'as we have no fair synonym for it in our own tongue, I shall beg leave now, as I have on various other occasions, to render mammals.' He repeatedly used the English form elsewhere in 'The Book.' I have been unable to find any use of the word in its singular number, however.

The singular form—mammal—has been indicated as rare or unusual. One might look through many volumes on mammals as well as on general natural history and not find it. As a matter of fact, however, it may be frequently used. Let us go, for example, into a laboratory when they are assorting a miscellaneous lot of bones gathered from some fossil ossuary. Such expressions may be heard as 'that seems to be a mammal bone'; 'that is a mammal bone'; 'that is a mammal bone'; 'that is a mammal bone'—or the substantive mammal alone may be used. Further, a whale may be alluded to as a gigantic mammal or a mammal giant.

The earliest English author to use the singular form to any extent was Richard Owen. In his 'History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds' (1846), for example, he alluded to a mastodon as 'this rare British Fossil Mammal' (p. xxii), and asserted that he knew 'of no other extinct genus of mammal which was so cosmopolitan as the mastodon' (p. xlii); he said that 'the Myrmecobius is an insectivorous mammal, and also marsupial' (p. 40), and he claimed, conditionally, that 'the Meles taxus is the oldest known species of mammal now living on the face of the earth' (p. 111).

Even the word in plural form was grudgingly admitted. The Latin form mammalia was long preferred. The chief translators of the 'Règne Animal' rendered mammifères by mammalia; Blyth alone substituted mammalians in its place. Owen, in the work already cited in which mammals was used on the title-page, employed mammalia in the text more frequently than mammals, and yet he used the English form more than any of his contemporaries. Popular as well as scientific writers avoided the English word as one alien to the genius of the language. Some preferred the word mammifers when they would use an anglicized term.

By reason of the general ignorance of the etymology of the word mammalia, and the dislike of it, on account of the misapprehension that it was an imperfect or clipped word, the early French naturalists devised one of their own—mammiferes—and this early took root and has been universally adopted by French writers. It was to some extent adopted by English writers of the first half of the century under the form mammifers. Robert Chambers, in his anonymous 'Vestiges of Creation' frequently used it and Hugh Miller, in his antidotes to the heresy of the Vestiges, sometimes did. Miller, in his 'Old Red Sandstone' (1841), also accepted the singular form in his statement (Chapter IV.) that 'the mammifer takes precedence of the bird, the bird of the reptile, the reptile of the fish.' The use of the word, nevertheless, was never general. The derivative adjective, however, was much more frequently adopted for a time.

Lyell, in his 'Principles of Geology' almost invariably used the word mammalia, but accepted the adjective mammiferous instead of mammalian and even of mammaliferous. (He admitted mammifers in his 'Glossary' but did not otherwise use it.) This, naturally, was an example which others followed. It was not until the first half of the century had been past for some time that the English word came generally into use.

The science which treats of mammals had to be named. Mammalogy was naturally thought of, but many objected to it. The French, who would not tolerate mammal or mammaux, although they had no objection to the analogous animal and animaux, on the whole took kindly to mammalogie or mammologie. Substitutes, it is true, were offered; Desmarest proposed mastologie and De Blainville mastozoologie and the latter was admitted by Littre in his great dictionary, but they did not secure a permanent foothold and mammalogie is the term now generally used.

The objection to mammalogy was and is that it is a hybrid and also a badly compounded and clipped word. It is formed of the Latin mamma (a breast or teat) and the Greek λόγς; the true meaning is a discourse on breasts rather than breast-bearing animals. Greek nouns also generally have the vowel o rather than a before the second component. Consequently suggestions were made to correct the word to mammology if not mammalology. Others would compound a name of two Greek constituents (θῄρ, a wild beast, and λόγος). Therology was the result. Dr. John D. Godman, in his 'American Natural History' (1824), entitled the first (and only published part) 'Mastology,' thus borrowing a word first used by Desmarest. The writer of the long article on mammalia for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (1819) coined the word Mazology ('μαζος, a breast, and λόγς, discourse'). None of these words has found general admission into the language. Notwithstanding the philological objections, mammalogy of late years has been generally accepted and general consensus establishes its right of being.

I have derived the terminal form of words ending in-ology from λόγς rather than λογία, which latter has sometimes been given, because the only Greek word λογία (occurring in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, 16: 1, 2) means 'a, collection for the poor,' and therefore λογία is misleading and has misled several to my knowledge. The Greek words dikologia, etymologia, philologia and theologia of course are good precedents for the English words ending in-ology and consequently we may use, as a suffix, -λογία (but not simply λογία) in explanation of the etymology.



Supplementary Note.

While reading the proof of the preceding article I found reason to fear that, through my desire to be concise and not discursive, I might give a misleading idea of the originality of Linnæus. The concept of the class of Mammals did not spring Minerva-like from the head of the Swede, but the great English naturalist of the seventeenth century (John Ray), to whom Linnæus owed so much, was suggestive in this as in other cases. Ray, in his 'Synopsis Methodica Animalium Quadrupedum et Serpentini Generis' (1693, p. 53), gave an 'Animalium Tabula generalis' in which he bracketed the terrestrial or quadruped mammals with the aquatic as 'Vivipara,' and contrasted them with the 'Ovipara' or 'Aves.' The Vivipara are exactly coextensive with Mammalia but the word vivipara was used as an adjective and not as a noun. Linnæus did not catch up with this concept till 1758 when he advanced beyond it by recognizing the group as a class and giving it an apt name. To go farther into details is tempting, but would be out of place here.

  1. The assertion of Owen that Aristotle fully recognized the class of mammals under the name Zootoca is without proper foundation. Long ago, in the American Naturalist (VII, 458), I showed that different passages in Aristotle's books negatived such a statement and that the word zootoka was not used as a substantive.