The first work in which the fictional character Sherlock Holmes appeared was A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. In that novel a man has been found dead, and a police inspector named Lestrade comes to investigate. The narrator, Dr. Watson, writes:
“I have remarked that the [wall]paper had fallen away in parts. In this particular corner of the room a large piece had peeled off, leaving a yellow square of coarse plastering. Across this bare space there was scrawled in blood-red letters a single word:
“‘What do you think of that?’ cried the detective, with the air of a showman exhibiting his show. ‘This was overlooked because it was in the darkest corner of the room, and no one thought of looking there. The murderer has written it with his or her own blood. See this smear where it has trickled down the wall! That disposes of the idea of suicide anyhow. Why was that corner chosen to write it on? I will tell you. See that candle on the mantelpiece. It was lit at the time, and if it was lit this corner would be the brightest instead of the darkest portion of the wall.’
“‘And what does it mean now that you have found it?’ asked Gregson [another police inspector] in a depreciatory voice.
“‘Mean? Why, it means that the writer was going to put the female name Rachel, but was disturbed before he or she had time to finish. You mark my words, when this case comes to be cleared up, you will find that a woman named Rachel has something to do with it. It’s all very well for you to laugh, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. You may be very smart and clever, but the old hound is the best, when all is said and done.'”
Readers familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon known that the official detective is usually wrong, and Sherlock Holmes usually right. It turns out that Rache is not short for Rachel, but, as Holmes points out, is a German word meaning ‘revenge.’
And you, dear reader of this canon of words, what do you make of the title of today’s posting, ocelo? Will you be an etymological Lestrade and say that it is an unfinished version of the word for the type of large cat called an ocelote/ocelot?
Or will you, Holmes-like, write that off as being too obvious and instead surmise that ocelo probably has something to do with yesterday’s posting about ojal ‘buttonhole’ and the word it was derived from, ojo ‘eye’? This second is the better, i.e. correct, choice. Spanish ojo developed from Latin oculus, a diminutive whose basic form—which might have been something like *ocus—didn’t survive prehistoric Latin. Once oculus lost its diminutiveness and became the basic word for ‘eye,’ Latin formed the new diminutive ocellus. English has borrowed that Latin word outright, and Spanish has converted it to ocelo; both designate ‘a marking that looks like an eye,’ as for instance on a butterfly or a peacock’s tail.
A picture may or may not be worth a thousand words, or however many are in today’s posting, but the photograph below does show the ocelos/ocelli on the wings of a hackberry emperor butterfly. (And this is the third time, after the entries about áfido and hormiga, that a column about etymology gets to cross the line into entomology.)
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman