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Rob Dyrdek's etymological quandry
Sunday, February 17, 2008   3:45 PM

So earlier tonight I watched the "Turtle Racing" episode of Rob & Big. Here's a rough version of the notable quote:

Rob: "I found out that a person who studies turtles is a herpetologist... so maybe we go talk to the herpy...."

[general laughter]

Rob: "Why would you call yourself that? What does a turtle have to do with itches on your wee-wee?"

The superficial resemblance between the two words is hard to miss, and — if you'll allow me to play Bradshaw of the Future for a moment — it turns out that herpetology and herpes really are related: they're both offshoots from the Greek herpein, "to creep."

The Online Etymology Dictionary can flesh it out for us:

"study of reptiles," 1824, from Fr. herpétologie, coined from Gk. herpeton "reptile," lit. "creeping thing," from herpein "to creep" (see serpent) + logia "a speaking in a certain manner, study of."
1398, from L. herpes "a spreading skin eruption," from Gk. herpes, the name for the disease shingles, lit. "creeping," from herpein "to creep" (cognate with L. serpere "to creep").

I was a little surprised that I couldn't find any evidence of a rebranding attempt. At the aptly named Buy Zovirax website, a blogger explains my confusion:

I have felt burning for some days. A doctor has addressed me to the herpetologist.

That's right, both senses of herpe- can appear behind the same signifier. The descriptivist in me is inclined to accept this very low-frequency usage of the word herpetologist for someone who specializes herpetic diseases. The copy editor in me might balk, depending on the audience.

Most dictionaries give herpetic as the adjectival form of herpes, and it's in that sense that it has the broadest currency — but here too, we can get mildly unfortunate stuff like this line from the book Columbia National Parks:

The herpetic fauna in Selva de Florencia is one of the most abundant and varied in Columbia and the world.

(Note the the author's exemplary use of the singular fauna. News to me.)

Once again this sentence is perfectly understandable, even if the identical spellings are troubling on a conceptual level. And it turns out that this low-frequency sense of herpetic is just one of the lovely lexicographic innovations we owe to the herpetologists. (The scientists, not the doctors.)

Where to begin? First of all, herpetologists really do study herps, a.k.a. reptiles and amphibians. It turns out that this is a very common term within the field.

(Reactive grammar aside: how many schoolchildren have given the easy, "wrong" answer to "what is herpetology?" Hey kids, you were right after all! Sorry, but we wanted to make sure you were sufficiently baffled by science terms in particular, and the English language in general.)

From herps we get herping, which has its own Wikipedia entry so you know it's Made It Big. It's interesting how herping seems to differ — at least connotatively — from both birding and fishing.

Another word formation line-dance gives us herptile. Huzzah for innovation!

Much less common, but nevertheless amusing, is the inevitable herptacular.

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