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I Can Has Shimmery Eyez (minicast)

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The death of Martha’s favorite cat Typo prompts her to reminisce about him, and about one of her favorite ailurophilic words, chatoyant.

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My cat Typo was a gray tabby. Greenish-gold eyes, always getting into trouble. In fact, I’m sure that during his 17 years, he used up far more than nine lives.

As a kitten, he once jumped head first into a bathtub filled with water. (All I’m going to say about that is “ouch.”) Staying indoors left him indignant. So I tried to train him to walk on a leash. That didn’t go so well either. He broke free, skittered all the way up a huge tree—and nearly hung himself. Thank goodness my neighbors had an extra-long extension ladder.

Typo earned his name the first day we got him: He walked right across the top row of my keyboard, and typed “66666.”

This year, Typo died peacefully. I’ll miss the way he used to butt his head up against mine, how he squinted whenever he was happy. You know what else I’ll miss? Sometimes, at dawn or at dusk, I’d walk into a room and I’d catch the sudden glow of his eyes.

You know what I’m talking about? That iridescent shimmer? There’s a great word to describe that. It’s “chatoyant.” It means “having a changeable, iridescent luster, like a cat’s eyes.” You might describe a “chatoyant gem,” for example. Or a “chatoyant silk dress.” I once read a poem that included the phrase “a silence chatoyant.”

Where’d we get such an odd-sounding word? If you speak French, you’ll see the word for cat curled up inside this word. Chatoyant is from French “chatoyer,” literally “to shimmer like a cat’s eyes.”

Speaking of the word “tabby,” did you know its linguistic roots go all the way back to a suburb of Baghdad? Back in the 17th century, a kind of silk cloth with streaked markings was produced in the part of Baghdad known as al-‘Attibya. The cloth took its Arabic name from the name of the place where it was made. A version of this word passed into Medieval Latin, French, and ultimately into English, and soon came to be applied not just to “striped silk taffeta” but the cats who resemble it.

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