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the upper-Southern U.S. region, although, like “catamount,” you’re more likely these days to find the word used in a historical document, rather than in daily use.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