Week twenty-four: ZIFFIUS (probability 32305), by David Sutton

I have played words of even lower probability, but so far the ZIFFIUS has eluded me. It is a sea-monster, to be found in the works of Edmund Spenser, that probably owes something to the swordfish, for which the Greek name was Xiphias; compare also XIPHOID which means sword-shaped.

Spenser gives us another sea-monster, the beautifully named ROSMARINE, which is probably to be equated with the walrus, for which the Danish name is rosmar. However, the Danish name became influenced by the Latin ros marinus, sea dew, which gives us the word rosemary, and a rationalisation of this gave rise to the idea that the ROSMARINE fed on dew which it licked off rocks.

It must be remembered that in those days natural history was in its infancy, and any tall tale brought back by travellers was likely to be given credence, as a glance at a mediaeval bestiary will show. Thus we have the YALE, depicted in heraldry as resembling a horse with tusks, horns and an elephant's tail, the ONOCENTAUR, half-man and half-ass, the MANDRAKE, a plant thought to have magical powers that emitted a deadly shriek if uprooted, the PHOENIX (or PHENIX), a bird that was reborn from its own ashes and the AMPHISBAENA, a snake with two heads. The same credulity gave us the SIMURG, a monstrous bird of Persian fable, the DIPSAS (plural DIPSADES), a snake whose bite was believed to cause intense thirst, and the TRAGELAPH that was part goat, part stag. But my favourite of these unlikely creatures is the BAROMETZ, or Scythian lamb, a plant that was supposed to be also animal, growing on a stalk but eating grass like a lamb. Plant a few of those and you've got a self-mowing lawn...


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