However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light – Stanley Kubrick
In my previous life as a fishery scientist I was, for a few years, one of a couple of Marine Laboratory staff whose remit included sharks, skates and rays.
One thing that I recall from those days is searching through our old registry files to inform myself of some earlier correspondence on shark fisheries around Scotland. In doing so I chanced upon a letter in which a member of the armed forces had asked for some information on sourcing a particular type of shark skin.
The problem was that he didn’t know which type of shark the skin had come from, so could the Lab help as it was needed to refurbish the handles of his regiment’s 19th century ceremonial swords.
The Lab’s response was given by one of its elders, an old-school naturalist and a gushing fount of arcane knowledge; the sort of scientist that is now deprecated due the focus on quantitative rather than qualitative methods, and the need to posit testable hypotheses rather than to speculate upon observations (necessary, perhaps, but rather charmless).
Anyway, our old-school guru was able to tell the armourer that the species in question was the kitefin shark, Dalatias licha. I don’t recall what resulted from that correspondence, but I do know that Pooley Sword in the south of England is the ‘goto’ company for the UK’s military swords, and its website states that, even today, when refurbished “the grip core is carved from wood, then covered in fish-skin before being bound with gold or silver-plated wire”.
I don’t know if the ‘fish-skin’ to which Pooley Sword refers is from the kitefin shark as the species is currently classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN and, in Scotland at least, it is not allowed to be landed under the Sharks, Skates and Rays (Prohibition of Fishing, Trans-shipment and Landing) (Scotland) Order 2012.
So why this diversion down memory lane? Well, recent deep water research off New Zealand has shown that the kitefin shark is luminous in deep water. Fancy us not knowing that until now! In fact, it is now the world’s largest known luminous vertebrate and casts its own light into the dark.
Here’s the limerick…
A diver once dove to embark
On a trip to the depths cold and stark
But was given a fright
In the absence of light
By a shark that shone bright in the dark!
Postscript: In writing the musings above, I wanted to check whether I should write “a fount of arcane knowledge” or a font of arcane knowledge”.
I thought it should be the former, but as the latter is widely used I also thought I should check. It seems that I was right and, in that context, ‘font is a ‘mondegreen’ whereby a word or phrase is misheard or misinterpreted in a way that may make sense, but is incorrect. Mondegreens usually arise from misheard song lyrics and the first that I recall was from the Terry Wogan Breakfast Show in the 1970s when a line from the Kenny Rogers song ‘Lucille’ that read “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field” was mischievously misheard by Wogan as “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hundred children and a crop in the field”.
Apparently the word ‘mondegreen’ is itself a mondegreen and formed the basis of the term when a line in the song The Bonnie Earl O’Moray was misheard by Sylvia Wright, an American writer who, when a child, instead of hearing:
They hae slain the Earl o’Moray,
And laid him on the green;
later wrote that she heard:
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen;
My favourite mixing up of words is not strictly a mondegreen, but relates to the name of George Harrison’s supergroup, The Travelling Wilburys. The Wilbury part of the name came from Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame) who pointed out that when mastering recordings, a minor issue on one track was no reason to re-record it as “we’ll bury it in the mix” and such an imperfection had become known as a Wilbury as in “wilbury it in the mix”. I like that story!