East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Don’t play the hooluk


There was this thing my grandmother used to say – and my mother sometimes, too – when I was a kid and I did something silly… fà nén l’ulùk, which is Piedmontese dialect, probably specific to the Turin area, for don’t play the fool, or don’t be silly.

Now I must say a lot of terms my grandmother used were extremely strange, exotic and never fully explained. To me as a kid was like she was some kind of character that came from another world, full of strange words whose meaning I extracted from context.
But that word in particular…

I had never thought about ulùk in particular, but this afternoon, as I was sitting with a cup of tea reading Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus (great book, incidentally), relaxing after a long writing session, right there on the page was…

Mr Dean was sitting on his verandah drinking beer, and on the verandah with him were his dogs, Tibetan mastiffs, his cockatoos, a mongoose, three cats and a hooluk monkey

Black Narcissus, page 28

It’s too similar not to raise some suspicion.
So I did a bit of research, and yes indeed, there is such a thing as a hooluk, hoolock or uluk monkey, in India. It is a gibbon, and three species are known: Western hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock), Eastern hoolock gibbon (Hoolock leuconedys) and the very Star Wars-y
Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing).

And I wondered whether, for some strange circuitous reason, the word entered the Piedmontese dialect. Don’t play the monkey.
Zoo, circus, popular adventure novel? Whence did it come from?

But it got at the same time simpler and stranger.
Talking with a friend that’s more versed in our native dialect that I am, turns out ulùk is in some areas of Piedmont the name of the owl.
And by checking the Hobson-Jobson, I found out the name of the gibbon is derived from Bengali hulàk, and possibly in turn from the Sanscrit huluk – which means owl.
Isn’t this whole language thing wonderful?
One way or another, I find this connection or similarity quite fascinating.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Don’t play the hooluk

  1. I know, i’m pedantic…
    In Piedmontese, the “ulùk” is, more precisely, the “Strix Aluco” (“Tawny Owl”).
    Considering that the Italian name of this bird is “Allocco”, the dialect sentence probably is merely a translation.
    But now a new question raise: why the “allocco” gave the reputation of a silly character?


    • See, I should have avoided posting on the subject and just go and check a Piedmontese language dictionary.
      As for Owls having a bad rep, it’s probably because of their surprised expression, with the big goggle-eyes.


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