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The Secret Lives of Words: See you later, alligator!
There’re about 1.3 million gators in Florida (not counting all the UF football fans), and it’ll soon be easier to manage that population, thanks to a rule change approved this spring by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As Jim Turner recently reported in the Times and Star, the big lizards can now be legally targeted 24-7 during the statewide season, which runs Aug. 15 to Nov. 1 each year.
One local alligator made news when it got hooked in the early morning of Sept. 18 this past year. On an expedition led by Rickey and River Banks of Betternuttin’ Charters in Eastpoint, long-time conservationist Monty Lewis of Thomasville Georgia hauled a huge bull gator out of the Apalachicola River that looked like it might surpass the 1,043-pound state record; unfortunately, the weight couldn’t be confirmed because the scales busted at nearly 900 pounds. The critter measured 13-feet 2-inches but had probably also exceeded the Florida record of 14-feet 3.5-inches before it lost half its 21 tail scutes, likely chomped off by an angry rival (yes, gators do eat gators!). Chatham Marshall, Eastpoint taxidermist (the word comes from Greek and means “skin-arranger”), will begin working his magic on the reptile this July and plans to have it ready for Monty to display by August, location yet to be determined.
In January of this year state troopers were called in to deal with a 12-footer crossing I-75 in Collier County’s “alligator alley.” A smaller, but apparently very thirsty gator, also in Collier, startled a couple in April when it invaded their garage and tore into a case of Diet Coke, popping open a couple cans and spewing soda far and wide. That same month an 11-footer made national news when he lumbered across State Road 417 near a bridge over Lake Jesup in Seminole County, backing up traffic for miles.
Never mind traffic jams, soda-theft, and gator-balism, what about people-eating? While attacks on humans are rare, the gator’s size, its capacity for short sprints at up to 30 mph, and its 80 or so serrated teeth (which wear down from gnawing and then regenerate again and again, for as many as 4,000 in a gator’s lifetime) are enough to terrify the average tourist and inspire horror film-makers as well. There’ve been some truly frightening, and frighteningly bad, croc and gator flicks, with scary titles like “Rampage” and “Eaten Alive” (Rotten Tomatoes website has a ranking). “Lake Placid 2” (2007), with actress Sarah Lafleur (no relation!), comes in with the lowest score, 11 percent; Roger Ebert gave the original “Lake Placid” one star out of four, despite Betty White’s delightful supporting role performance, and included it in his 10 worst films list for 1999.
One of the best, with Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 84 percent, is director Alexandre Aja’s “Crawl” (2019), which is set in fictional Coral Lake, Florida, during a Cat 5 hurricane. The film’s heroine Haley, played by Kaya Scodelario, is a member of the UF women’s swim team, which of course comes in handy when fending off gators in a hurricane-driven flood. My wife Alice and I watched it online with Apalach friend Lois, and we all enjoyed the scream-inducing, if predictable action and what one critic called the film’s “strong Florida energy.” At the same time coastal Floridians in particular can appreciate, as another reviewer observed, that while “the villain in ‘Crawl’ is a giant alligator… the real threat is that of impending ecological collapse.”
The ancestors of our modern alligators (today found mainly in the U.S., Mexico, and China) and their crocodile cousins (whose more widespread habitat includes Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australia) appeared more than 200 million years ago and evolved right alongside their kindred dinosaurs. The words “alligator” and “crocodile” come from the Latin and Greek words for “lizard,” lacerta and krokodilos. Both, like the dinosaurs, belong to the class Reptilia, a Latin word that means “creepy-crawlers” (hence the title of Aja’s film and the fact that much of his movie’s action takes place in a crawl space). The crocs and gators managed to survive the great dinosaur extinction about 65 million years ago and appear in some of man’s earliest art and historical records.
The ancient Romans found crocodiles both fascinating and frightful. They exhibited crocs in pools and on stage and pitted them against humans and other animals in their gladiatorial shows. One fourth-century limestone relief in the Sofia (Bulgaria) Museum depicts a venatio (hunting game) with a group of bears attacking humans, bulls, and a fierce-looking crocodile.
Egyptians as early as the third millennium B.C. worshiped the crocodile god Sobek, usually depicted with the body of a man and a crocodile head. The tamed sacred crocodiles in Arsinoe, Egypt, were a favorite attraction for wealthy Romans and other tourists, who were allowed to feed them bread, meat, and wine. The Arsinoe crocs recognized their handlers’ voices, came when called, and even opened their mouths to have their teeth cleaned.
Gold and silver coinage issued by Augustus to celebrate his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra and the annexation of Egypt bore the image of a crocodile along with the inscription AEGYPTO CAPTA, “Egypt captured,” on the reverse, and his own image with CAESAR COS VI (“Consul for the 6th time”) on the obverse. A first-century mosaic in the House of the Faun at Pompeii depicts a Nile scene with a crocodile and other animals and plants.
Flash back to the U.S. and it’s clear that modern Americans share this fascination with gators and crocs. We drink Gator-Ade, eat fried gator tail, wear Crocs sandals, cheer on Albert the alligator in Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” visit Orlando’s Gatorland (which opened way back in 1949), binge-watch the 1980s Crocodile Dundee movies (reprised in “Crocodile Dundee” in Los Angeles,” 2001), and boogie to Sir Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
And, speaking of rock and roll, if you’ve been on the planet as long as I have, you’ll well recall Bill Haley and His Comets’ 1956 Top 10 hit, which gave me the perfect sign-off for this column: “See you later, alligator, after ‘while, crocodile, See you later alligator, So long, That’s all, Goodbye.”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin and Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa – who has thus far succeeded in protecting them from any and all gator attacks.