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shameless pleading

Smalas

The Armchair Ornithologist.

[Note: as will shortly become obvious, this column was written last December.]

Dear Word Detective:  What is a “smalas”? Jules Verne uses it in “An Antarctic Mystery” (Chapter X) when looking at a flock of penguins. As he usually uses “stupid” in front of the word “penguin,” I’m assuming it’s derogatory. All I can come up with is a reference to the entourage that follows an Arab sheik where ever he goes, so I don’t really get what Jules means. Can you help? — Rose Hopwood.

That’s a darn good question. Speaking of penguins, something occurred to me recently while I was lying insensate in front of the TV, hypnotized by the non-stop barrage of holiday shopping ads. It’s a good thing I don’t have any money, or I’d be up to my eyebrows in iPhones, iPads, iPads for Pets, iBlenders and iPlumberSnakes. Anyway, what’s up with Santa Claus and the penguins that have begun to appear with him in many commercials? Because there are, in fact, no penguins, none, nada, at the North Pole. Penguins live mostly in Antarctica, at the other end of the freaking planet. Hmmph. When it comes to Santa Claus, I expect zoological accuracy. Now about those reindeer…

Thanks for asking about a word that appears in a public-domain book. It’s very dispiriting when someone asks a question about something they found in a book to which my only access involves ponying up $25 to Amazon. But “An Antarctic Mystery” is available freely on the internet.

Verne certainly seems to be out of step with our modern adoration of penguins. As you note, it’s rare to find a mention of them in his 1897 book without that pejorative adjective nearby (“These stupid birds, in their yellow and white feathers, with their heads thrown back and their wings like the sleeves of a monastic habit, look, at a distance, like monks in single file walking in procession along the beach,” Chapter I). One doesn’t have to be an ornithologist to find that level of antipathy toward an innocent little bird weird, and it’s even weirder given the fact that Verne had never been anywhere near Antarctica (or even the southern Indian Ocean, the setting of the story) when he wrote the book.

In any case, the relevant passage in Chapter X describes the penguins’ entirely understandable reaction to the approach of Verne’s protagonist: “Whole ‘smalas’ of penguins, standing motionless in interminable rows, brayed their protest against the invasion of an intruder — I allude to myself.”

By “smalas” Verne apparently means “large group, crowd,” and his placement of the term in quotation marks could be taken as an indication that it is a zoological term or what James Lipton (author of the wonderful collection of such terms “An Exaltation of Larks”) called a “term of venery,” such as “pride of lions” or “murder of crows.” But Verne’s use of “smalas” is an extended sense of a term he had no doubt picked up from adventure books himself, and its origin has as little to do with penguins as Verne himself did.

You won’t find “smalas” in an English dictionary because it’s French, and in that language a “smala” or “smalah” is simply an “entourage,” a group of people who routinely accompany a person of power or prestige. In Hollywood, for instance, a famous actor’s “smala” would probably consist of several childhood friends, a few assistants, a bodyguard or two, a broker and a botox artist. Here at Word Detective World Headquarters, my “smala” seems to consist largely of cats, though I do have two dogs on call in case the UPS guy shows up.

The root of “smala” in French is the Arabic word “zmalah,” meaning “tribe,” which originally meant the large retinue accompanying a sheik or other leader on a journey across the desert. Such a group would include other nobility, a contingent of soldiers, and a complete household staff (cooks, servants, etc.). Non-human traveling companions in the “zmalah” routinely included squadrons of camels, of course, but also flocks of sheep and enough furniture and knicknacks to fill a Pottery Barn. Not your usual weekend camping trip, in other words.

Verne’s use of “smala” to mean simply “herd” or “large group” is a bit of a stretch, but by Chapter X he must have pretty much exhausted his thesaurus of terms for lots of birds. And using an exotic term like “smalas” also adds a soupçon of authenticity to a story written by a guy who wouldn’t have known a penguin if it had, justifiably, bitten him.

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