Three New Words

I learned three new words so far by reading Alexandra Horowitz’s The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves. Horowitz, a dog cognition researcher, decided for the first time in her life to adopt a puppy, not an older rescue dog. Her book chronicles her pup’s development from birth at its foster home (the mom is a rescue) with its ten (ten!) littermates.

The first two words are altricial and precocial. Dogs and humans are both altricial species. Ducks and cattle are precocial. Want to guess the difference? (Or you may be smarter than I and already know.)

Ducks and cattle are born pretty much ready to go. They can walk, they can see, and they’re fully furnished with feathers and fur (or, let’s say, a coat). They’re precocial, in other words.

Puppies and babies are not so prepared, are they? No teeth, little to no eyesight, no temperature regulation, and so on. Dogs and humans require some pretty intensive parenting. They’re helpless babies! They’re altricial!

Could Latin roots have helped us figure out this distinction? Altricial’s root, alere, means “to nourish.” The verb’s participle is altum (“having been nourished”), and, in case you’re wondering, that word gives rise (so to speak) to our words related to height, such as altitude. Because eating all your dinner makes you big and tall. An altrix in Latin is a nourisher. And altricial babies need their altrices.

Precocial species, in contrast, are nidifugous, which clears things up, right? Put nidi- and fugous together, and you have fleeing the nest. Latin praecox means “precocious” or “ripe before its time.” Even more interestingly, the -coc- root comes from the Latin verb meaning “to cook.” So when your friend is bragging about her precocious daughter, you should ask, brow furrowed with concern, “Oh, no. She’s precooked?”

Horses and ducks and calves and dinosaurs and wildebeests, like your friend’s daughter, are precocious, or more scientifically, precocial. They can take care of themselves almost from birth, which is helpful when you’re born into a predator-rich environment. Altricial species like ours require crib rails and blankets.

Horowitz also taught me the word merle. It describes the mottled coat of dogs like Australian shepherds. Take a look here to see for yourself. Such dogs often have blue or odd-colored eyes as well. Naturally, I wondered where this word came from. A merula is a Latin blackbird and has given the name merle to a species of blackbird in our language. But those birds are not speckled or mottled.

As to why a dog with a mottled coat is called “merle,” who’s to say? Every source says “origin unknown.” Its derivation is a linguistic mystery! I’m glad to have learned the word, though, as well as altricial and precocial. And I’m only about one-third of the way through the book!

What’s new in your vocabulary?

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4 Responses to Three New Words

  1. Fran Lissemore says:

    Those scientists have a word for everything! For the record there are lots of altricial birds too, like the robins and wrens, whose nestlings have no feathers and wait with open beaks for mom and dad to shove insects and worms into. Thanks for the image, Kathy, of a precocial child being pre-cooked.

  2. Kathy says:

    New to me! Seems like it should be related to “merle,” but doesn’t look like it is.

  3. Sarah Becker says:

    New to a fellow knitter: marled. Meaning mottled, streaked, multicolored. says chiefly Scottish; not so; it’s chiefly knitty. From noun, marl, a loose or crumbling earthy deposit (as of sand, silt, or clay) that contains a substantial amount of calcium carbonate. Middle English, from Anglo-French marle, from Medieval Latin margila, diminutive of Latin marga marl, from Gaulish ( So your multicolored sweater is not made of earth but may give an earthy impression. Gaulish but not ghoulish.

  4. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    A whole bunch of new words here!

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