The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle - XI

Sunday Times August 11 2002


The perfuming skills of the musk-rat
Apart from the primates already examined, the names of ten other mammalian species exclusively or partly associated with Sri Lanka are recorded in the second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) and Hobson-Jobson (H-J2). There are three rodents, three deer, a bat, a cat, a rabbit and an ox. None of the names are of Sinhala origin, although two, bandicoot and gaur, are of regional origin. The vast majority are English terms, such as barking-deer, flying fox, mountain-hare, mouse-deer, musk-rat, rock squirrel, and rubiginous cat. Date of first use is provided in brackets.

Bandicoot (1789). Sinhala Uru-miya. According to the OED2 it is a "[corruption of Telegu pandi-kokku, literally 'pig-rat'] A large Indian rat as big as a cat, and very destructive." This name is applied to the species known as the Indian Bandicoot, Bandicota indica indica.

The dictionary provides a reference by James Emerson Tennent from Ceylon (1859[1860]:I.150): "Another favourite article of food with the coolies is the pig-rat or Bandicoot." However, it is Robert Percival, writing in An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803: 294), who first uses the term in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka: "The bandy-coot is as large as a middle-sized cat, the body very thick and round, and the head greatly resembling that of a hog; it also makes a grunting noise like that animal. When closely pursued or attacked, the bandy-coot becomes very fierce, and turns furiously on its assailants."

Barking-deer (1880). Sinhala Olu-muwa, Welli-muwa. "The Indian muntjac, Cervulus muntjac, found in India, Burma, and Tibet; so named from its call." This name is applied to the species now known as the South Indian Muntjac or Barking Deer, Muntiacus muntjak malabaricus. The first and only reference is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1880:XII.742): "The barking deer or muntjac." The earliest reference in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka is by Alan Walters from Palms and Pearls; Or Scenes in Ceylon (1892:160): "The barking deer is a small elegant animal."

The corresponding entry in H-J2 states: "Its common name is from its call, which is a kind of short bark, like that of a fox but louder."

Elk (1803). Sinhala Gona. "In Anglo-Indian use, the Sambur." This name is applied to the species known as the Sri Lanka Sambhur, Cervus unicolour unicolour. The second reference is by Samuel W. Baker from Wild Beasts (1890:306): "Sambur deer, miscalled elk in Ceylon." The earliest reference from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka is once again by Percival (1803:288), a reference that antedates the first recorded in the OED2: "Varieties of deer and elks are every where met with in the woods and jungles." The corresponding entry in H-J2 notes that the name has been misapplied with "singular impropriety."

Flying fox (1759). Sinhala Maha-wawula, Locu-wawula. "A member of the genus Pteropus of fruit eating bats, found in India, Madagascar, s▀outh-east Asia, and Australia." This name is applied to the species known as the Common Flying Fox, Pteropus goganteus giganteus. No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given in the OED2. There are many, nevertheless. The earliest is by Percival (1803:292) "The flormouse, or flying-fox, like the bat, partakes of the appearance both of the bird and the quadruped; and its name is derived from the great resemblance of its head and body to the fox." William Dalton provides a reference from fiction in Lost in Ceylon (1861:67): "A rousette, or flying-fox, which must have measured at least five feet from wing to wing, launched itself through the air from the branch of a tree, and struck my horse's head so violently that the animal reared upon its hind legs." There is a corresponding entry in H-J2.

Gaur (1681). "Also gour, gore. [Adoption of the Hindustani gaur.] A large species of ox, Bos gauros, found wild in various parts of India."

The earliest reference is dated 1806 and has no relevance to Sri Lanka. In any case this can be antedated, for Robert Knox writes in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681:21): "Here are also Buffalo's; also a sort of beast they call Gauvera, so much resembling a Bull, that I think it one of that kind. His back stands up with a sharp ridge; all his four feet white up half his legs. I never saw but one, which was kept among the Kings Creatures."

John D'Oyly, writing in his Diaries (1812[1917]:97), provides the first reference after Knox from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka: "There is also . . . a Species of Animal called Gawara, about the size of a half grown Buffaloe, & much the same colour, but with its horns hanging down. It is very seldom seen, because it studiously avoids man, & runs away at the very scent of him. It is said, that a Gawara was once caught and sent to Kandy - It died about a month afterwards."

Major Forbes, writing in Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840:II.159), also mentions a captured specimen: "One of the range of plains that extend amongst the hills between Nuwara-ellia and Adam's Peak is called Gaura-ellia; this name it is said to have obtained in consequence of a large and fierce animal, called a gaura, which was caught there about fifty years ago. This creature is probably, we may say certainly, extinct in Ceylon, as none have been seen by Europeans; but in several parts of the country, particularly in Lagalla, its former existence is vouched for by the names of places, as the 'Gaura-field,' the 'Gaura-flat,' etc. But, except that it was an animal, they have no tradition concerning it, either as regards its shape or size."

Mountain-hare (1848). Sinhala Hawa. "c. a tailless hare, Lagomys Roylii, native of Ceylon." This name was applied to the species known as the Sri Lanka Black-Naped Hare, Lepus nigricollis singhala.

The first of two references is by Werner Hoffmeister from Travels in Ceylon and Continental India (1848[trans]:446): "Tall bushes of furze, the home of a small multitude of... small mountain-hares."

Mouse-deer, moose-deer (1836). Sinhala Meeminna, Capita-meeminna, Wal-miya. "[Moose-deer and mouse-deer seem to be corruptions of musk-deer, a name which was early misapplied to this animal; the former due to the association with the known moose-deer, the latter perhaps suggested by the animal's small size and the colour of its hair.] A chevrotain, a small deer-like mammal of the genus Tragalus, found in southern Asia, Sumatra, Borneo, and Java." This name is applied to the species known as the Indian Spotted Chevrotain or Mouse-Deer, Tragalus meminna. The earliest reference is from the Penny Cyclopaedia (1836:VI.454): "(Ceylon) There is also another of very diminutive size, called the moose-deer."

Knox (1861:21) is the first to mention the Sinhala name, Meeminna, and to describe the animal, but once more it is Percival (1803:288) who provides the earliest reference to moose-deer: "...it is called by the Dutch the moose-deer, and by the natives gazelle. In everything but in size they are complete deer; and their sides are beautifully spotted, or streaked like the fallow deer."

Musk-rat. Sinhala Hik-miya, Kunu-miya. "2. Applied to... rat-like animals having a musky odour. a. In India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the shrews Crocidura murina and C. caerulea." This name is applied to two species, the Indian Grey Musk Shrew, Suncus murimus caerulescens, and the Common Indian Musk Shrew or House Shrew, Suncus murinus murinus.

Knox (1681:31) provides the earliest reference: "They have a sort of Rats, they call Musk-Rats, because they smell strong of Musk. These the Inhabitants do not eat of, but of all other sort of Rats they do." In his 'interleaved copy' Knox (1713[1989]:I.104) mentions the musk-rat's extended snout and its unfortunate tendency to urinate in rice: "The muske rat is no biger then another rat, onely his nose is longer and sharper. His skin will perfume any thing it is put amounge, and some times they will pisse amounge rice, which gives it such a strong sent of muske that neither washing with water or beating in Moertor will abate the smell, which by these people is hated that they will fling the sented rice to the hens." The first of a number of references after Knox from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka is by Percival (1803:294): "The musk-rat, or perfuming shrew, is very small, with a long snout, much extended beyond the under jaw. In running about it makes a squeaking noise like the squirrel, but much shriller and louder. From the intolerable smell of musk which accompanies and remains behind these animals where-ever they go, they are very disagreeable inmates; and there is scarcely a house in Colombo in particular which has not been strongly scented in every corner."

The postdating reference from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka is by Samuel Baker from Eight Years in Ceylon (1855[1983]:63): "The musk-rat is a terrible plague, as he perfumes everything that he passes over, rendering fruit, cakes, bread, etc., perfectly uneatable, and (it is said) even flavouring bottled wine by running over the bottles. This, however, requires a little explanation, although it is the popular belief that he taints the wine through the glass. The fact is, he taints the cork, and the flavour of musk is communicated to the wine during the process of uncorking the bottle."

The corresponding entry in H-J2 states: "When the female is in heat she is often seen to be followed by a string of males giving out the odour strongly."

Rock squirrel (1852). Sinhala Dondalena. "A variety of squirrel native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon)." This name was applied to the species known as the Long Tailed Squirrel, Ratufa macroura macroura. The sole reference is by E. F. Kelaart from Prodromus Faunae Zeylanicae (1852:49): "The common Rock Squirrel." There is a later reference by the anonymous officer [Horatio Suckling] who writes in Ceylon, A General Description of the Island (1876:II.115): "The common very dark brown rock squirrel, found in the western parts of the island, which is subject to changes of colour, some being black or grizzled." This name is applied to the species known as the Long Tailed Squirrel, Ratufa macroura macroura.

Rubiginous cat (1881). Sinhala Kalawedda. "1. Rusty, rust-coloured, ferruginous." "b. In specific names of birds, etc." This name was applied to the species known as the Golden Palm-Cat, Paradoxurus zeylonensis.

The sole reference is from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society (1881:818): "A Specimen of the Rubiginous Cat (Felix rubiginous) from Ceylon."