The ancient Roman word for a pet was deliciae, which we’ve inherited in DELICIous and DELIGHTful. It’s what the 1st century B.C. poet Catullus called his girlfriend Lesbia’s sparrow, despite his annoyance that the bird spent more time playing in the lady’s lap than he did himself. My own childhood pets included gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, white mice and rats - all furry little mammals called “rodents,” from the Latin for “gnawing,” rodo/rosum. The same verb gives us eRODe and corROSion, which to the Romans literally meant something like “nibbling away at” and “thoroughly chewing up” - so much of our English vocabulary is just this visual, once you know the Latin roots!
I also cherished chameleons (still do), and praying mantises, which inhabited my bedroom window, betwixt screen and glass, and inspired my affection for that C-minus 1957 sci-fi movie “The Deadly Mantis.” We never had cats when I was growing up, but did adopt a sweet, scruffy schnauzer, my one boyhood dog. We called her Blondie, I guess for the color of her hair - though the name reminded me of the Blondie comic strip I read voraciously in the Sunday funnies. At age 12 or so I wanted to become a professional cartoonist, which didn’t work out because I couldn’t draw.
I wasn’t thinking about pets when I went off to college at age 17, being too self-absorbed and far more interested in Elvis, the Beatles, parties, and girls. Met one (a girl, not a Beatle), got married senior year, and we soon brought home our first (slightly crazy) cat.
While doing my graduate work and becoming a young professor, we had a whole series of babies, three to be exact, as well as cats and dogs, including a 150-pound St. Bernard we named Cerberus for the three-headed hellhound of classical myth. I suppose it was the same part of me that came to love cats that also caused me to give our babies the too cute names “Booboo,” “Dubi,” and “Bubby.” As the kids aged up, it seemed the best way to jettison those nicknames was to pass them on to newly acquired pets. So the next couple of pups we adopted became Booboo and Dubi, thus sparing son Jean-Paul/JP and daughter Caroline those distinctly unprofessional monikers in their CEO and attorney adulthoods.
Our youngest, Kim, remained “Bubby” (big-brothered by JP into “Buggy”) straight through high school and then handed the name over to a wharf cat we adopted right here in Apalach back in the early 90s. We were at a waterfront table, about to order, when the Boss’ boss Caroline stealthily padded up and asked if we wanted a kitten. I feel sure I yowled “no way,” as we had Kroger-cat Gizmo and her offspring Baby Bear and Pumpkin at home. Of course Caroline insisted we just take a peek, and that was that. Bubby lived mostly with Kim, but for a good while with us as well, and made it to the ripe old age of 93 (19 cat years in human time, according to calculatorcat.com). Like Baby Bear, Bubby was a “dat,” a dog-cat, who like the loyalest canine would greet us at the door and was always everywhere we wanted to be.
The ancient Romans were more into canines (subject of my earlier Times column “It’s a Dog’s Life”), but they appreciated cats too - not least for their inclination to dine on meddling mice (“Love to eat them mousies, Mousies what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off . . . Nibble on they tiny feet” - thanks to the late, great cat-toonist B. Kliban!). They were enjoyed too, especially by women it seems, for their playfulness, and the elder Pliny admired their stealth, noting how quietly they creep up on their victims and (in J. Toynbee’s translation) how “when they need to do their business they dig a hole in the earth and bury every trace,” thus concealing their scent from prospective prey.
Cats were domesticated as early as 2000 B.C. by the Egyptians, who called them miu (yes, creatures that “mew”!), venerated them as the warrior cat goddess Bast, and even mummified them! From Egypt they were ultimately imported by the Greeks (whose word for cat was ailuros, “tail-twitcher”) and Italians. In Greco-Roman art they first appear on coins and in vase paintings of the 5th century B.C. They are depicted sometimes playing in the presence of their mistresses, standing on their hind legs, on leashes, dancing to music, toying with balls, and often gazing hungrily at a nearby goose or partridge.
One famous mosaic from Pompeii shows a wide-eyed, striped and spotted cat with his paw on a plump bird he is contemplating for dinner. While skeletal remains of domesticated dogs have been found in the excavations of the city, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and a plaster cast has been made of one that had been trapped and completely covered in hardened ash, there is very little such evidence for cats. As one scholar speculated, “did the cats have some uncanny premonition and escape in time from the doomed towns?”
A student recently sent me a link to an article titled “A cat co-authored an influential physics paper.” The scientist-author had jokingly named his “collaborator” F.D.C. Willard, “after his species name, Felix domesticus, his actual name, Chester, and the name of the cat’s father, Willard.” It’s a funny story, but even funnier is the writer’s f-word.
The classical Latin word for cat was feles or felis, source of FELine, and an early scientific name for the household pet was Felis domesticus (from domus/home, as in DOMestic and DOMicile). Felix/felicis, on the other hand, is entirely different, an adjective meaning “happy” or “fortunate,” as in FELICitous and FELICity. Now, there was a celebrated “Felix the Cat” in comics I enjoyed in my youth (and tried to draw!), and that cartoon star (felixthecat.com) may possibly have been named with a pun on felix vs. felis in mind. But Felix domesticus is an inFELICitous slip, though it does conjure the image of a happy cat!
The later, post-classical Latin term for “tom-cat,” catus/cattus/gattus, is related to English CAT and to CATerwaul, the wailing cry of a cat in rut. In the medieval fable, “Belling the Cat,” a group of nervous mice call a meeting to discuss ways of protecting themselves from the neighborhood cattus. One brilliant mouse/mus (the diminutive musculus gives us MUSCLe, which like your flexing bicep, the Romans thought, resembles a “little mouse”) proposed hanging a bell from the feline’s neck, so they could hear his approach. All the other mice approved the plan, but to the crucial question, “Who will bell the cat?” each and every one replied, Certe non ego, “Certainly not I!” In a mosaic from Morocco a cat named Vincentius/Conqueror, sporting a red collar and bell, slays a mouse named Luxurius/The Extravagant, perhaps in parody of a gladiatorial victory.
Speaking of bells and cats, I’m reminded of local cat-lover and native Apalachicolan, Louie Van Vleet, who pedals by our house daily with cat chow in his bike basket to feed a clowder (or “glaring”!) of local felines. Louie makes his rounds like clockwork, and when he rings his bell, the cats come running, knowing it’s time for Louie’s meals on wheels. The town has other “ailurophiles” (Greek for “cat-lovers”), including of course the Franklin County Humane Society (forgottenpets.org), who sponsor events throughout the year to help our furry friends, both domestic and feral, live ever more felicitous feline lives!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.