September 04, 2006

Barbed, not bitten

I was surprised to hear a man who knew Steve Irwin talking on NPR this morning about his tragic death from being "bitten" by a stingray. Perhaps he just misspoke under the stress of a phone interview after the death of a friend. I know people talk about being bitten by a bee or a wasp, but I had always thought that the origin of that usage had to do with lack of understanding of the mechanisms: bees and wasps are very small, and you generally don't see them doing what they do (injecting you with a sharp poisoned barb at the rear ends of their bodies). But stingrays are huge.

Perhaps it's just me, but my understanding of what bite means is that it's about gripping and usually puncturing or tearing through the use of teeth or fangs operated by jaws or mandibles of some kind, or possibly a beak, but definitely not stabbing with a pointed implement. Steve Irwin, the irrepressible crocodile wrangler, would have died of a bite if ever one of his beloved crocodilians had gotten to him; but the irony is that the fatal reptilian bite never came. He was stabbed in the heart by a fish. "Barbed", as the Boston Globe put it. I shall miss him. Having seen Australian saltwater crocodiles in the wild while I was in Queensland to work on The Cambridge Grammar with long-time Australian resident grammarian Rodney Huddleston, I had the deepest respect for Irwin. A braver man than I. I wouldn't go near one of those creatures, ever. But then, come to think of it, I also swam on the Great Barrier Reef. It could have been me that startled a stingray and got an unlucky hit in the chest. With Queensland's wonderful but extraordinarily dangerous wildlife you never know what'll ultimately kill you.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 4, 2006 09:55 PM