“Lynx-eyed”
Posted: 31 August 2007 12:15 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I proposed “lynx-eyed” on another thread, as a term derived from a fictional character, because I have long thought that the term “lynx-eyed” may have originally been a reference to Lynceus, the Argonauts’ lookout, rather than to the feline lynx.  i am not aware of any scientific evidence that lynxes have sharper sight than other feline species. The widespread belief that the lynx does have exceptionally powerful vision (which seems to go back several hundred years), may even stem from some conflation of “lynx” and “Lynceus”, and in fact one or two of the sources available to me go as far as to suggest this. Do people who know lynxes, but have had little or no contact with Greek mythology (in the Himalayas, for instance, or among the aboriginal peoples of America) have the same belief in the preternaturally acute vision of the lynx?  Wikipedia’s not much help—under “lynx - mythology” it has only some unsupported tarradiddle.

I know of no better place than wordorigins.org for testing my idea, and I’d be grateful for help. What does the OED say about the earliest use of the term “lynx-eyed”? And does this earliest use carry a clear implication that the lynx is believed to have specially keen vision? (I am secretly hoping that someone well-read, like aldi, will come up with a quotation from --- say --- Milton, or Bacon, referring fairly obviously to Lynceus not the lynx).

Anybody? Please? If I had the OED I’d be doing this myself. Seeing my fancies blown to smithereens will not dismay me --- I’m quite used to it ;-)

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Posted: 31 August 2007 01:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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English-language citations are not likely to resolve this, since the idea that lynxes are keen-eyed seems to go back well before written English.  FWIW, “lynx-eyed” only goes back to 1597, but allusions to the keenness of lynx’s sight go back farther “1340 HAMPOLE Pr. Consc. 576 A best {th}at men Lynx calles, {Th}at may se thurgh thik stane walles.”

The OED also notes the lynx of the ancients is the cat now called the caracal. The caracal is a nocturnal hunter, which may account for the notion that its eyesight is unusually keen.

However, the etymology is probably the most relevant part of the entry:

a. L. lynx, lync-em (Sp., Pg., It. lince), a. Gr. lygz (genit. lygkos), cogn. w. Lith. luszi-s, OHG. luhs (mod.G. luchs), OE. lox, Du. los, Sw. lo. Prob. related to Gr. leyssein to see, the animal being named from its quickness of sight.

(These are my transliterations of the Greek letters, and I haven’t attempted to render the diacritical marks.  The Greek noun shown clearly ends with gamma-zeta, not nu-xi, but the Perseus project and the AHD transliterate the name as “lunx”.  Someone with more Greek can probably explain this.)

Perhaps Lynceus was called that because he was lynx-eyed?

Edit: Further evidence of the antiquity of the belief that lynxes had exceptional vision is provided by this excerpt from an article by the late Stephen Jay Gould:

In 1603, Federico Cesi, the duke of Aquasparta, founded an organization that grew from uncertain beginnings to become the first scientific society in modern European history. Cesi (1585-1630), then a teenage nobleman, invited three slightly older friends (all in their midtwenties) to establish l’Accademia dei Lincei (the Academy of the Lynxes), dedicated to scientific investigation ("reading this great, true, and universal book of the world,” to cite Cesi’s own words) and named for a sleek and wily carnivore, then still living in the forests of Italy and renowned in song and story for unparalleled sight among mammals.

The legend of the sharp-eyed lynx had arisen in ancient times and persisted to Cesi’s day. Pliny’s canonical compendium of natural history had called the lynx “the most clear sighted of all quadrupeds.” Plutarch had embellished the legend by speaking of “the lynx, who can penetrate through trees and rocks with its sharp sight.” And Galen, ever the comparative anatomist, had written: “We would seem absurdly weak in our powers of vision if we compared our sight to the acuity of the lynx or the eagle.” (I have translated these aphorisms directly from Konrad Gesner’s 1551 compendium on mammals, the standard source for information on natural history in Cesi’s day.)

The article was originally published in Natural History and was included in one of Gould’s later collections (possibly The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, I don’t recall for sure) but is available online here.

[ Edited: 31 August 2007 02:10 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 31 August 2007 08:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thanks, Dr. Techie (I had a feeling you might come up with something).

No arguing with evidence like that.

(smiles bravely)

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Posted: 01 September 2007 12:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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FWIW, Robert Graves translates Lynceus as lynx-eyed in the index of the Greek Myths and Liddell and Scott spell it Λυγκεύς (Lugkeus).  I know that the Greeks used a gamma gamma to represent the ng sound.  Apparently they used gamma kappa to represent the ngk sound.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 03:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I see no zeta, but lynx ends with a ksi: L&S have λύγξ (literally lugks, phonemically lunks), λυγκός (lugkos, lungkos) glossed as both Felix lynx and Felis caracal. As Faldo points out, in Greek orthographic conventions γγ represents ng, and γκ ngk, γξ ngks.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Robert Graves translates Lynceus as lynx-eyed

Graves was a good poet and storyteller but a lousy scholar, far more interested in his own often wacky ideas than in boring old truth.  Take anything he says about the meaning of Greek names with a good helping of salt.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 12:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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languagehat - 01 September 2007 06:51 AM

Take anything he says about the meaning of Greek names with a good helping of salt.

Hence the FWIW.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 03:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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jheem - 01 September 2007 03:30 AM

I see no zeta, but lynx ends with a ksi

That’s what I would have expected (except I’m used to the spelling “xi") but when you say that you “see no zeta”, exactly what are you looking at?  In the online OED, the word I rendered as “lugz” is written λύγζ, and when I copy-and-paste it comes out as “{lambda}{guacu}{gamma}{zeta}” (literally; it replaces the Greek characters with these curly-bracketed tags, just at it replaces a thorn with {th} in the early English citation).  I suppose even the OED can have typos…

[ Edited: 01 September 2007 03:29 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 01 September 2007 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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FWIW, my poor-man’s OED shows a xi as expected. I suppose the on-line version has a typo. I have no access to the on-line OED (without driving several miles to the big library).

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Posted: 01 September 2007 06:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I looked at the online L&S at Perseus.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 06:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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What do you have to do to get Greek letters?  I use that site fairly often (and referred to it in my initial response to Lionello’s question), but all I ever see are crummy ASCII transliterations.

Edit: Never mind!  I just Read TFM.

[ Edited: 01 September 2007 06:45 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 01 September 2007 06:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I just Read TFM.

which FM?

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Posted: 01 September 2007 07:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Well, the FAQ, actually.  Especially the part about viewing Greek with Greek fonts. 

I think when I first started using the Perseus site, several years ago, there weren’t many options for doing this, especially for Mac users.  Somewhere along the line they added Unicode support but I hadn’t noticed till now, and the default setting is still ASCII transliteration.

My thanks to jheem for making me aware of the improvement.

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Posted: 01 September 2007 07:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Ah, right.  This page, right?  Thanks.

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Posted: 04 September 2007 07:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I have no access to the on-line OED (without driving several miles to the big library)

D Wilson, I don’t know where you’re posting from, but if you’re in the UK and you have a library card from your local council-run municipal library, you can access the online OED from home by going through your council’s website and using your library card number as a log-in - this page here on the OED website gives details. This may be the single thing that makes the huge sums I pay in council tax worthwhile - actually, no, it isn’t, I still pay too much, teach me to live in the least subsidised borough in the country ...

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Posted: 04 September 2007 08:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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This seems like an opportune time to nag, I mean, encourage everyone once again to put their home country, at least, in their profile.  I’m pretty sure D Wilson is American, but there’s no way for a newer member like Zythophile to tell.

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