Kangaroos are Peculiar

I can’t remember how old I was when I first came across a problem with the word peculiar. I know I was still at school, probably in grade 4 or 5. I was reading an atlas. The book was old – it had been Mum’s when she was at school – and in the one or two paragraphs set aside to describe Australia, the word peculiar was used in a way I found, well, peculiar.

There was a memorable illustration of a kangaroo – memorable because the animal’s proportions were misrepresented, making it appear fat, dull-witted and not all like the dynamic, wild creatures I knew them to be. The book told me Australia’s geographic isolation from other land masses explained why marsupials, like the kangaroo, were peculiar to Australia.

This was clearly very wrong.

Nothing could be more familiar and natural to our land girt by sea than a kangaroo. I went directly to the former owner of the book and, with great scorn, ridiculed the atlas for having made such an error.

Mum had given me a copy of the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary (2nd Edition) for Christmas one year. She referred me to it now, telling me to ‘look it up’ before I decided I knew so much about words and their meanings. I did, and found myself amazed.

pėcū’lĭar: adj. Belonging exclusively to; belonging to the individual; particular, special; singular, strange, odd.

Why does this word have two, conflicting meanings? Weren’t words meant to be reliable and unchanged over time?

Apparently not.

This is the clearest, earliest memory I have of what has become a love of language and etymology. Recently, a very lovely author I’d had the great privilege of  meeting and learning from described her passion for ‘the wonderful power and mystery of words’. Her excitement as she discussed the medieval derivations of ‘No Thoroughfare’ was plain, so much so, she worried we, her students, might think her mad. I wanted to leap up and tell her she wasn’t mad, not at all, because I was equally fascinated by the topic. I didn’t, of course. I only had to imagine how it would look to insist ‘Yes! Yes! I’m just like you!’. It would have been peculiar; odd to everyone else in the room and absolutely typical of me.

Various sources (I’ve listed them below) tell us peculiar is derived from the Latin peculiaris, meaning ‘one’s own private property’. The noun peculiare – private property – was apparently in use in the 6th century. In Italian today, peculiare is an adjective, describing a distinctive or characteristic feature of a person or thing, which is exactly what peculiar meant in England in the 1400s; the ‘private property’ connotation was being used only one or two decades later.

There are many words based on pecu, the Latin for flock or herd. Livestock – cattle in particular – was a form of currency in times gone by; hence words related to pecunial – consisting of or relating to money – such as pecunious (wealthy, money-loving, frugal) and, the negative form, impecunious (penniless, in want of money), not to mention peculate (to embezzle or missappropriate money). As an aside, the word fee is also derived from the idea of cattle as a form of wealth. The Teutonic/Germanic origins of fee can probably be traced back to pecu.

Now, I know I’ve only scratched the surface here. I love language but I’m far from being an expert. I’m more of a trivia-gatherer, dabbling in the curiosities of etymology and not applying any kind of disciplined study or knowledge. The point is this: kangaroos are peculiar. Whenever I encounter the word, I think of the ponderous depiction of the kangaroo in Mum’s quaint atlas; whenever I see a kangaroo, I think of the word.

How wonderful then to find the following definition of peculiar on the Wiktionary:

1. Out of the ordinary; odd; curious; unusual.

e.g. It’s rather peculiar to see a kangaroo outside of a zoo in America.

2. Common or usual for a certain place or circumstance; specific or particular.

e.g. Kangaroos are peculiar to Australia.

Wiki and I have a lot more in common than I might have imagined.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary (dictionary.oed.com); Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com); Word Information (www.wordinfo.info); WordReference.com (www.wordreference.com); Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary); The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, 2nd Ed, 1976, Coulson J. et al, Oxford University Press, Great Britain (my bookshelf). 

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