Dangerous, Because Endangered

It is possible that a verb was developed for `becoming a rhino' in Hebrew because there was a social phenomenom that required a word form to describe it.

After watching a new production of "Rhinoceros" by the Notzar Theater in Jaffa, adapted and directed by Avishai Milstein, it occurred to me that the rhinos have quite a good case to present before a tribunal dealing with "interspecial" (ruling in disputes between species) matters, should one ever convene. They could present a class-action suit claiming defamation and slander against one Eugene Ionesco - a Romanian-born playwright who, in 1958, wrote a play entitled "Rhinoceros," in which the animals are described as ugly and thick-skinned, with a horn (or two) on their snouts, aggressive behavior and a tendency toward stampedes that have ruinous results for all concerned (except themselves, of course).

According to the zoological facts, the rhinos could not claim that they are beautiful (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and they could claim that they are beautiful in their own eyes!), nor could they argue against being thick-skinned (their skin is, in fact, 4 cm thick on their shoulders). But they are herbivores that actually lead a solitary life, never in herds. Rhinos are almost blind, and although they possess particularly sharp senses of hearing and smell, they are indeed prone to feeling threatened. Thus, when they rush ahead blindly, their sheer mass and weight - they are the world's second-largest mammals on earth, after the elephant - will do damage, although each one usually does so individually.

But the gist of the suit would be the fact that the rhinoceros today is an endangered species, and its numbers are dwindling fast, especially when compared with those in the 1960s, when the play was written. Only 15,000 one-horned rhinos now live in Africa, about quarter of them black and the rest white; less than 2,800 of these rhinos, in three subspecies, live in Asia (India, Indonesia, Vietnam).

The main enemy of the rhino is the human - not only because people think (although it is scientifically unfounded) that ground-up rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. In addition, there are those who make cups out of the horns. It seems that the chemical make-up of the horns is such that certain poisons stain them and can be thus detected in time by the prospective poisonee. But the main threat to the rhino derives from practioners of Chinese medicine, who traditionally use the powder ground from its horns as an anti-pyretic.

For thousands of years the human has been personifying animals, domesticating wild beasts and harnessing them in the realm of the imagination, through literature and language (which is what makes our form of mammal "human").

Man, with his anthropocentric pride, bestows human traits on innocent, unsuspecting animals. In his play, however, Ionesco chooses an opposite track, animalizing, turning humans into rhinos in front of the audience.

Rhinos vs. unicorns

The Greek historian Ctesias wrote in the fourth century B.C.E. about a horse with one horn on its head: the monoceros. Aristotle, in the same century, described its horn and hoofs, and called it "an Asian donkey." According to Pliny, a unicorn was a creature with a horse's body, a deer's head, an elephant's feet, a lion's tail - and one black horn two cubits long, projecting from its forehead. Maybe the ancient scholars were really describing a rhino, based on rumor.

All biblical references in Hebrew to re'em (an oryx) have been translated in Greek, Latin and, consequently, English as "unicorn." Myth and legend took the unicorn with its phallic horn and turned it into a charming, mystical creature, while relegating the ugly, frightening rhino to the zoo.

In many languages this horned species retained its Greek and Latin name, rhino (meaning "horn") and ceros (meaning "nose"). Some translated this conjunction - for example, it is nashorn in German, nosorog in Russian. In Hebrew, Mendele Mocher Sfarim proposed in 1862 the hyphenated words keren (meaning "horn") and af (meaning "nose"). It was Yossef Klausner who, in 1900, proposed the portmanteau word karnaf, turning a heavy and ugly animal into a short, two-syllabled, compact, almost sexy word.

And thus, rhinos have grounds to sue the Hebrew language. When the fathers of the reborn language started to coin new words during its renaissance, they turned many nouns into verbs - "verbalizing nouns," as it were ("verbalizing" itself being a noun-turned-verb). In Hebrew, you can quite easily turn a word denoting the name of an animal into a verb.

The man who coined the verb lehitkarnef (becoming a rhinoceros, which in Ionesco's play, meant literally and figuratively losing human decency) was Nissim Aloni, who translated "Rhinoceros" into Hebrew in 1962. In 1972 Amos Oz used the verb in a review of Arie Lova Eliav's book "Land of the Hart." And it became a part of everyday language.

Ionesco's characters describe the rhinos that appear suddenly in their town, argue whether they have one horn or two, try to understand them and wonder if it would not be better to join them as you cannot beat them. What the play depicts most of all is the process of "becoming a rhinoceros" - developing thick skin and brutal behavior, and changing one's mind and behavior to be one of a herd.

Oddly enough, Hebrew is the only language (of those in which the play was performed, was understood and enjoyed success) that has coined a verb relating to human behavior using an animal's name. Hebrew had the verb form to do it, the reflexive hitpael, and can deal easily with four-letter word "roots," but other languages could do it as well. If we can "file" or "accessorize," why not "rhinocerize"? Is the word too long and cumbersome to become a verb? Does English allow for verbalization of inanimate objects? This is a problem that dogs us.

It is possible that a verb was developed for "becoming a rhino" in Hebrew because there was a social phenomena that required a word form to describe it. In language, necessity is the mother of invention. And, by the way, in Hebrew the verb is used in second or third person only: No one will declare that he himself is turning into a rhino.

In a society that sees itself as being on the verge of extinction (and not without historical justification) - and as one that rushes blindly and aggressively in all directions - to deliberate at length about the etymological roots of "rhinoceros" and its cultural history is in itself a form of becoming a rhinoceros.

So sorry, I have to quit now. I'm stampeding to the nearest jungle.