The Mysterious Puma

Do you say “poo-ma” or “pew-ma”?

This last week, I learned that Joe Barrett, who read the audio book of Artemis Awakening, chose to pronounce “puma” as “pew-ma.”  I have always said “poo-ma.”  To make things even more interesting, both pronunciations are absolutely correct.  I’m sure that’s why Mr. Barrett, who made a point of contacting me and going over pronunciations for character names, place names, and created words like “seegnur” never thought to ask.  He already knew…

Puma: Rio Grande Zoo

Puma: Rio Grande Zoo

Actually, how to pronounce “puma” was the least of my difficulties when I decided to have Adara’s demiurge be that particular type of feline.  My first challenge was which word to use when referring to the creature.  This was never a problem I faced when writing about Firekeeper and the wolves!

According to various sources, there are something like forty words in English alone for Puma concolor.  The creature apparently holds the Guinness world record for the animal with the most names.  The large number of names probably developed because of Puma concolor’s wide range across the Americas.  This meant that many different languages, indigenous and imported alike, took their turns giving the critter a name.

In fact, the puma’s adaptability was one of the reasons that it appealed to me for Adara’s companion.  I liked the idea of an animal that could be equally at home in jungles or deep snows.  It’s a strong swimmer, a good climber, and, although small compared to some of the “great cats,” amazingly strong.

(Aside: Even today, there is argument as to whether the puma is the smallest “great cat” or the largest “small cat.”  I’ll save the details but, oddly enough, purring has a lot to do with it!)

The most popular names for Puma concolor are puma, cougar, and mountain lion.  “Catamount” – likely a contraction of “cat of the mountains” – has been used, although, these days, it belongs more to dialect than to common speech.  The puma is also often called a “panther.”  This is a designation it shares with the melanistic (or black-coated) variants of the jaguar and leopard.  To differentiate, it’s often called a Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi), although the term “panther” has been used in other places than Florida.

The term “panther” has been corrupted to “painter” in the upper-Southern U.S. region, although, like “catamount,” you’re more likely these days to find the word used in a historical document, rather than in daily use.

I’ll spare you a list of different names and instead take you along the route I traveled when deciding what to call the creature on the planet Artemis.  Wanting to avoid both confusion and terms that had fallen out of general use, I focused in on the big four: puma, cougar, mountain lion, and panther.  I discarded “panther” pretty quickly because of the ease of confusion with the melanistic jaguars and leopards.  I might want to use them later, after all…

Next under consideration came “mountain lion.”  This had a lot going for it.  For one, the term “lion” immediately summoned up a feline.  However, I wasn’t crazy about “mountain” because these creatures are found in many of other types of terrain – including swamps and islands in rivers.  Since one reason I wanted to use this particular feline was its adaptability, why fix on a designation that would mean Adara would continually need to explain that it was only called a “mountain” lion?

That narrowed choices down to “puma” and “cougar.”  “Puma” offered the difficulty that many people were unsure how to pronounce it.  However, “cougar” offered an even bigger problem.

In recent years, “cougar” has become a slang expression for older women who choose to form sexual liaisons with younger men.  I knew that in time the slang expression would cease to be common currency.  However, I knew it would still be in use when Artemis Awakening was released.  Unintentional humor is always to be avoided.  Therefore, despite my fond memories of reading Charlie the Lonesome Cougar when I was in grammar school, I dropped “cougar” from the running.

I was quite happy to choose the word “puma.”  My first housecat had been a big golden tomcat formally named Gwydion, but affectionately called “Joe Stinky Puma.”  (Those of you who have read Changer and Changer’s Daughter may recall a cat called “Stinky Joe.”)  I’d always liked the word “puma” and, other than encountering some confusion as to how to pronounce it, most people seemed familiar with it.  Puma had the added benefit of only being four letters long – something that had a certain appeal given how many times I’d be typing it!

So that’s how Sand Shadow became a puma, and a little window into the convolutions of one author’s mind.

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15 Responses to “The Mysterious Puma”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Grin!

    I’m with Joe, Sand Shadow is a puma! Long vowel before a single consonant.

    And, oddly, although I know perfectly well that they’re all the same critter, I tend to think of pumas as natives of exotic southern climes, while cougars are local. Which made puma the natural choice in the circumstances – I never even thought about why you would have used it.

    Mind you, it occurs to me to hope that cougars aren’t _too_ local. The coyotes seem to be doing an adequate job of keeping the yappy pet dogs trimmed back already; I wouldn’t really want to have hungry cougars drifting through our parks and ravines as well.

  2. Joe Barrett Says:

    I did actually look up “puma” in my trusty Random House Unabridged. I had heard both pronunciations but was unsure which was “preferred.” Over the years I have discovered time and time again that the pronunciation I KNOW to be correct is not, in fact “preferred,” or, at any rate, is no longer preferred. That’s the thing. Pronunciation, like language generally, is not fixed. There are no hard and fast rules that will lead you always to the one and only true pronunciation. That very mutability – that so human variation and even fashionability – is one of the things that makes language so fascinating to me. By the way, accents are similar. They change. And they vary from individual to individual – sometimes even within the same family. There ain’t no one way to pronounce anything. And that’s a boon for audiobook narrators. The differences are where our characters come from.

    • Peter Says:

      Well, some languages actually have hard and fast rules on pronunciation – it’s just that English isn’t one of them (if it were we’d still be pronouncing all the letters in ‘knight’).

      For an interesting look at shifts in the language, there are some videos floating around on YouTube looking at the (New) Globe Theatre’s experiment with recreating Elizabethan pronunciation for productions of Shakespeare (and re-discovering some truly filthy puns that had gotten lost in linguistic shifts over the centuries).

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ll worry about how to say puma when someone tells me the one right way to say coyote.

    As for what pumas are, I didn’t know purring mattered, which is cool, but I still don’t know, which is even cooler. According to the phylogenetic trees I looked at, there are basically two types of cat: pantherine cats (your lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards, aka the big cats), and everything else. Pumas seem to group with cheetahs, and even more closely with the cute and undeservedly obscure jaguarundi, which perhaps should be renamed the pumaundi. In any event, some phylogenetic trees show two lineages of cats, the pantherine, (non-purring?) lineage, and the (purring?) smaller cats, of which the puma is the largest. At least one tree does show the pantherines sitting in the middle of all the small cat lineages, one branch of the tree, rather than a separate trunk. That begs the question: do all small cats purr, and did big cats lose the ability? I haven’t a clue. Cheetahs do purr, and it’s pretty cool to listen to them.

    By the way, I’ve heard that a purr is anatomically a melodious snore, which does make me wish humans could purr.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    You say “poo-ma” and I say “tomato”…

    British english pronunciation is invariably “pew-ma”. Also, the proper (british english) pronunciation of “jaguar” is “jag-you-a”. The American pronunciation “jag-waa” sounds so weird to my ears that I don’t actually recognise it as a word at all!


    -Alan

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I always thought “pew-ma” was a great brand name for shoes, apropos of nothing.

      Incidentally, and with respect, it’s jag-war out here in the drylands. I think jag-waas are driven in Boston or there abouts.

      • Alan Robson Says:

        To me “war” is pronounced “wore”. So are you really saying “jag-wore”? That’s a serious question — I did actually consider writing the pronunciation as “jag-war” but I felt it didn’t properly represent the sound I was looking for…

        Perhaps I’ll just continue saying “tomato”…


        -Alan

  5. Paul Says:

    It speaks well for Joe Barrett that he went the extra mile to find out how the author pronounced her work, I think. Looking forward to hearing it.

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    When I was at school in eastern Idaho, Mountain Lion seemed to be the preferred name. Here in Washington State, Cougar seems to be the choice. I like Puma, though. And I like pronouncing it as a Spanish or Portuguese speaker would–“poo-ma”. According to Wiktionary, the word puma is actually borrowed from Quechua.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    To wade in above on the pronunciation of “jaguar” — I definitely pronounce the final “r.” It’s jag-oo-r, with “r” pronounced to sound like “are.”

  8. Paul Genesse Says:

    I like poo-mah, better, but it’s fine.

  9. Sean Says:

    For those of you in the 4 corners area – the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores Colorado has a lovely exhibit on Pumas. It also touches on many of Hetromeles comments on the two types of cats, and purring.

    I personalize prefer “Cougar” as it was my High School Mascot and is my children’s school mascot.

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