- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a prairie dog
Here’s a fact—and a picture—worth remembering.
First recorded in English in 1806, if you’re wondering (as many of you did over on Twitter) where that word comes from, the answer is a lot more straightforward than you might presume. No, it’s not some obscure, long-forgotten dialect nickname. No, it’s not some anglicized corruption of some long-lost Native American word. Instead, it’s just an onomatopoeia: prairie dogs, supposedly, make a noise somewhat akin to “wish-ton-wish!”
In actual fact, prairie dogs make a lot more sounds than that. And in fact, they produce such a vast array of calls and noises that it’s thought that they’re not only able to communicate what an incoming threat may be, but how large it is, and what direction it’s coming from.
And in fact—according to a study by Northern Arizona University animal behaviourist Con Slobodchikoff—prairie dogs have the most complex “language” of any known mammal, moreso even than other more overtly intelligent creatures, like dolphins, chimps, and orca:
[Slobodchikoff’s] research on the vocalisations of the Gunnison’s prairie dog, Cynomys gunnisoni, from Arizona and New Mexico ... discovered that this species’ communication system is so advanced, not only do they have different warning calls depending on the type of predator—coyote, domestic dog, human, hawk—they also construct sentences describing what a particular predator looks like. So, “a medium, rectangle-shaped dog with yellow fur ... is approaching”, or “Here comes a tall human being wearing a green t-shirt who is also fat.”
Scientific American (2014)
Astonishingly, prairie dogs are also known for their supposed ventriloquistic ability to “throw” their calls, making it difficult for potential predators to pick out which dog in a pack is raising the alarm.
What type of call or the context around it the name wishtonwish is meant to imitate, however, is unclear.