Ocelot

Josephine has just broken the shocking news (to me, at least) that the Italian word gattopardo, famous from di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, does not, in fact, mean “leopard”. Hmm. And she’s quite right. Gattopardo means “serval” or”ocelot”, and the Italian word for “leopard” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, leopardo. Knowing this makes it easier to understand why the novel and the film were wilfully mistranslated as The Leopard: it’s a wonderful book (and a wonderful Visconti film, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in the lead roles, with ravishing shots of the Sicilian landscape), but it’s hard to imagine crowds flocking to buy / read / see The Ocelot in quite the same way.

Attempting to come to terms with servals and ocelots is to learn that, splendidly, Buffon has much to answer for. (“Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No, it is Robinson Crusoe“, wrote Rousseau, in �mile). The OED tells us that an ocelot is “a leopard-like feline quadruped (Felis pardalis) of Central and South America, about three feet in length; the prevailing colour is grey, beautifully marked with numerous elongated fawn spots edged with black; the under parts are white or whitish with black markings; also called tiger-cat, leopard-cat”, and the first citation offered is even better than the definition, “1774 GOLDSM. Nat. Hist. II. 148 The catamountain which is the Ocelot of Mr. Buffon”, encouraging us to turn straight to the splendid word “catamountain” on an earlier page. And the serval, relatedly, is “A name applied (after Buffon) to some Asiatic wild cat or lynx; also to an American animal resembling this. Obs.“, or, alternatively, “A carnivorous quadruped, Felis serval, native of S. Africa, having a tawny coat spotted with black, a short tail and large ears; the bush-cat.”

What excellent words. “Lozenge” is a good word, too, and I spent a happy few minutes in a class the other week looking up its etymology — but on this occasion, at least, I will keep you in suspense.

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