The platypus, a.k.a. duck-mole, paradox, water-mole, duck-bill, is the outcast of the Australian animal kingdom: ‘it is like a puppy in the body, with four webbed duck’s feet, two wings, a beaver’s tail, and a goose’s head and bill; now a country that can produce such a monstrosity as this can produce anything’ (J.A. Edwards, Gilbert Gogger, 1876). For centuries, this awkward-looking creature has suffered the jibes of the public while the kangaroo and koala are lauded as national icons. The platypus’s mere existence was questioned, and was considered a taxidermy hoax when naturalists back in England attempted to demonstrate its existence in a far-off land. This ‘half-bird, half-beast’ (F. Cowan, Australia, 1886) ‘has long excited the scepticism and astonishment of naturalists’ (C. Lyon, Narrative and Recollections of Van Dieman’s Land, 1844) for its seemingly impossible amalgamative physical make-up – otter, mole, duck and beaver – that seems to defy the laws of biology.
August is Platypus Month, the time of year when the platypus is most likely to be seen. For too long the unpretentious platypus has been ridiculed with names that read more like insults! Today, the reputation of this exceptional creature has been tarnished across the globe, with some countries singling out the elusive platypus as one of Australia’s dangerous animals (Luke Royes, ‘Australian travel advice and warnings issued by foreign governments’, ABC News, 2016). In 1976, it was noted that ‘it is not generally known that such a delightful animal as a Platypus is venomous’ (E. Worrell, Things that Sting) – a fact that remains today. The male platypus possesses a venomous spur, which can cause those stung some pain and swelling. However, there is really nothing to worry about; the venom is non-lethal, is only present during summer months, and is used to defend against competition during mating season, not as a general protection method – hardly the terrifying creature some would have you believe. So this August, rather than sneering at its peculiarities, let’s take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is the platypus.
Amanda Louey is an Editor (Secondary Division) at Oxford University Press Australia. She can be identified by the following traits: drinks lots of tea; is a cat person (owns two); and has an indiscriminate love of all things sweet. Unsurprisingly, the latter puts her at odds with her dentist.
This article was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.
The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of theAustralian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.
Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson