Fear of eels

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 14 15:49:20 UTC 2010

At 10:34 AM -0500 1/14/10, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>Perhaps.  But vervet monkeys (from an ancestor of
>whom humans are descended) have three words to
>warn of danger, one of which means "snake".  (The
>other two are "leopard" and "eagle".  See, e.g.,
>Nicholas Wade's Jan. 11/12 NYTimes
>article.)  Perhaps it is really the dry, scaly
>forest or savannah snake, not the wet, slimy
>water-borne eel, that is our primal (primate?) fear.

Ah, but why then do we think of/describe snakes
as slimy?  Maybe our ancestors (or our ancestors'
ancestors) knew about those dry, scaly snakes
from our forest days, but then transferred the
loathing (and the words?) to the slimy eels.  The
collective unconscious can be a bit murky, after


P.S.  I especially liked the part of Wade's piece
in which he describes how Campbell's monkeys have
developed affixal evidential markers:

The Campbell's monkeys give a "krak" alarm call
when they see a leopard. But adding an "-oo"
changes it to a generic warning of predators. One
context for the krak-oo sound is when they hear
the leopard alarm calls of another species, the
Diana monkey. The Campbell's monkeys would
evidently make good reporters since they
distinguish between leopards they have observed
directly (krak) and those they have heard others
observe (krak-oo).

>At 1/14/2010 10:21 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>And eels.  To crib from an old paper of mine,
>>"Eel of darkness, eel of light", discussing
>>man's, and especially woman's, profound fear of snakes:
>>Morgan (1972: 157) rejects the standard view
>>attributing this phobia to 'something we brought
>>down with us from the trees'.  Rather, as befits
>>our evolutionary lineage as the aqueous ape, it
>>is not the snake in the grass that gives us
>>those 'atavistic creeps' but the deadly eel in
>>the water.  As evidence for her proposal, Morgan
>>points out that while 'the snake is by an
>>enormous margin the animal that most people
>>loathe', further inquiry shows that the
>>creature's most abhorred attribute is its
>>'sliminess'.  Mais où sont les slimy snakes d'antan?
>>Now, an eel is very slimy, but a snake's skin is
>>as dry as a length of sunbaked rope.  That slimy
>>snake that haunts our nightmares exists nowhere
>>on God's earth, except in the backwaters of the race memory of Homo sapiens.
>>        (Morgan 1972: 157)
>>And it would have been especially the female of
>>the species, naked in the shallows with an
>>infant or two in close attendance, who was most
>>vulnerable to the mordacious ravages of the eel,
>>and hence the most likely to have translated
>>this memory into what endures as a vestigial
>>phobia within the sex-linked collective unconscious.
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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