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Conjugating the cat

At times I overhear myself talking to my cat and hope no one else is listening. The cat doesn't seem to care; indeed, he tolerates some twenty or so names, most of them sticky, all nonsense, all making me wonder whether there is a pattern behind them, a rhyme or reason that might serve to extend, if not the linguistic horizon, an understanding of the mind at play. for I suspect that one of the reasons we enjoy our pets is that we can romp verbally with them, return to our long-ago joy in language for its own sound and fun.

I'll start with something simple -- not Puss-wuss or Catty-cat, though I've been guilty of addressing my dignified Maine Coon cat with such demented endearments -- but Patch. It's a perfectly good shortening of his name Apache. But what a compressed package. it manages to juxtapose the figure of an Indian warrior with that of a scarecrow, a thing of shreds and patches. (Apache does, by night, become something of a wandering minstrel, sending out a theorbo-like tone from back walls.) Or even a patchwork quilt (rather heavy when it lands on one's chest at 3 a.m.).

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But more often than Patch, he is called simpy Puss-nip. I hasten to explain that this is a hybrid, a crossing of the word parsnip with catnip -- which, I insist, has a vegetal logic. This has begotten a whole list of sobriquets, Nippums for one, or Nippims- nappums, referring, of course, to a cat-napm as distinct from a cat-nip.m

Naturally Nippums became Nippie for short. Nippie in turn begat another sequence, and I suppose that only a person who has once fallen under the spell of Spanish irregular verbs would have let her mind run in this particular maze. I had been especially taken with the preterit of saber,m to know. It goes like skipping rope, or throwing Frisbies, or handing out six kinds of soup: supe, supiste, supo; supimos, supisteis, supieron.m Altogether an absurd contrast, as if the conjugation wanted to make fun out of the serious thing called knowledge. Then there are still other irregular verbs which, to complicate matters, change the initial vowel in the first and second person plural. Before I knew it I had confronte my imperturbable cat with






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What was so satisfactory about this I don't know except that it combined childish noise, like a skip-rope tune, with a certain know-how in the questionable province of Spanish irregular verbs. "You're a conjugated cat," I told Apache, who didn't turn a hari. And I latched on to still another preterit that seemed to fit a feline as closely as do Apache's own leggings (somewhat like tortoise-shell fur hip boots, or a cowboy's fluffy chaps). It was for poner,m to place/put, and the preterit begins: puse, pusiste, puso,m which turns easily into pussy, pussiste, etc.

Nothing but puns, I can hear an inaudible but clear comment. And I suppose, for the sake of the sobriety of the English language, I should educate Apache to such austerities as "Pleasant morning," or "Will you be back tonight, sir?" or "Is the kidney perhaps too rare?" But there is not a hint of a rhyme (like Puss-wuss) in these locutions, no alliterative variants (such as Kittums- cattums), no sound echoes (like Catty-cat), no metaphors or word-associations for which one can devise a set of scientific imperatives.

I have long suspected my cat of doing calculus or logarithms as he sits meditatively, paws tucked in. The very least I can do is to conjugate my own subjunctive imperfect of the hypothetical verb "nippar": to be catlike, to contain the essence of catkind: Nippiera, nippieras, nippiera . . . .

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