One does not need an excuse to talk about sloths. These slow-moving tree-dwellers wear a goofy smile that says, “Live in the moment.” That or they are silently – joyously – breaking wind.
But I do have a reason, this post. My wife and I are jaunting down to Costa Rica. Move aside, quetzal: It’s the sloth we’re eager to spot. (I imagine they’re not hard to miss.)
Like their cousin, the anteater, the sloth has an apt appellation, despite the sinful associations that tarnishes their otherwise good name.
I find it interesting, though, that sloths are called so called. Very often, ecologically distinct animals like the sloth, now only found in Central and South America, bear their indigenous names. Like the quetzal, toucan, macaw – or, as I’ve discussed in another travel-inspired posts, the Quechuan condor, llama, and puma.
So, what’s up with sloth? Let’s have a quick look at its etymology.
For the name of the animal, the Oxford English Dictionary first spots sloth in Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage. (You might recall Purchas, whose travel writings are of great historical and lexical importance, from my posts on victim and tornado.) Concerning the sloth, Purchas notes: “The Spaniards call it…the light dog. The Portugals Sloth. The Indians, Hay.” Sloth appears to be a translation of the Portuguese preguiça, from the Latin pigritia, meaning “laziness.” Related is the Spanish perezoso.
Meaning “laziness,” sloth has been long been crawling up the tree of English. The OED cites it in the late 1100s. By the middle of the 1300s, sloth reached its personification as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sloth translates the Latin acedia and Greek ἀκηδία. These classical words suggest a spiritual apathy, which I don’t think the smiling sloth is guilty of. A little later, sloth came upon “slowness.”
The word sloth pulls a fast one, etymologically speaking: It joins slow and the noun-forming suffix –th, seen in other, words like stealth and strength (one of which definitely applies to the sloth). Sloth, then, is really just slowth; spelling and vowel changes yield its modern form. This formation surfaces in early Middle English, replacing the Old English slǽwð. In the record, the latter, found as early as the late 800s, clings on as sleuth, no relation to detectives.
From the Germanic-rooted, Old English sláw, slow is also very old in the language, when it originally referred to dullness of wits, not motion. Slow in terms of speed was actually slower to the scene.
Sloth is an epithet not only hung on only our tardigrade edentate, though: the collective term for a group of bears is sloth.
Up to this point, I’ve been a bit lazy myself. Sloths are known by native names, especially down in Brazil, where sloths there are known by the Tupi as ai, which Purchas seems to have documented as hay. Ai imitates the animal’s high-pitched cry – which imitates, too, I hope, our squeal of joy when we get to see a sloth. Not to be confused, of course, with the cry of “Hey, you guys!” in The Goonies’ very own Sloth.
The Mashed Radish will be back in March. Forgive my idleness while I’m away.