WORD IN THE HAND: CANNIBAL
A flesh perspective on poor old Columbus and bitey teachers
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Eating people is wrong, as Flanders and Swann sang in the chorus of their 1956 song, The Reluctant Cannibal. The pre-school principal who this week was found guilty of biting one of the children in her care has been at pains to point out that she is not a cannibal.
Which raises an interesting linguistic question: in order to be categorised according to your eating preferences, do you have to chew and swallow the food in question?
If I tear off a huge piece of steak with my teeth, then spit it out without tasting or ingesting it, could I still claim to be a vegetarian? I’d certainly be a wastrel, no question about that, but would the mere act of sinking my gnashers into a beefy rump automatically make me a carnivore?As far as I know, no forensic investigators visited the principal’s house to examine the contents of her fridge and larder, so we don’t know whether she might have had enough tender finger snacks stored to qualify her for a starring role in Hansel and Gretel.But, to be fair, no report implied that she had bitten a chunk out of a six-year-old because her blood sugar was low. In fact, no report said anything about an actual piece of the child being separated from the rest of it.
Can you call someone an apple eater if all they ever do is press their teeth firmly against the skin of the apple? The chomping lady’s defence was that the child had bitten another child and she was simply meting out a just punishment of the eye-for-eye-and-tooth-for-tooth variety.
This did not wash with the authorities, because biting people is wrong regardless of whether your intention is to teach them a lesson or use them as a source of nourishment.
Let’s leave the principles of the principal aside and return to cannibals, who have also had some bad press.The word “cannibal” resulted from a misunderstanding. It’s what Christopher Columbus thought the people of the Caribbean called themselves when he “discovered” them. The Taíno people, who lived then on what we now know as the Caribbean islands, called themselves Caniba. Columbus was under the mistaken impression that the Caniba ate people and that there was an “l” at the end of their name.
He got quite a few things wrong, did poor old Columbus.
So that’s how we got the word “cannibal”. For all we know, Columbus arrived in the Caribbean on a day when one of the Caniba teachers was trying to teach a bitey pupil a lesson.
This is how words get washed up on the pages of dictionaries, and how teachers get themselves into trouble.