hippoThe hippo emits a reddish fluid that led some people to think hippos sweat blood.  They do not.  The reddish substance is a sort of sunscreen for the delicate skin of the hippo.  Hippos don’t sweat.  They get in the water.

What I like more about hippos is that I understood their name early in my short ancient Greek studies career.  “Ipo,” in ancient Greek, with a forward-facing apostrophe over the iota, to show that it is aspirated, that you breathe it, which in English terms means there is an “h” sound.  Then “potamos,” which means river.

I took three semesters of ancient Greek in college, in an effort to avoid second semester French.  Well, that, and I wanted to read St. Paul in his original language, which I would recommend to anyone who is that big of a nerd.

There were only four or five of us in Ancient Greek 101.  Everyone was a classics major except for me.  I have no idea what became of them, but I admired their choice of major, even more impractical than mine, English literature.  On the plus side, taking a classical language meant that you didn’t worry a bit about speaking this other language, just reading, and that worked for me.

It might be more useful to have taken Latin, especially when I visited Rome that would have come in handy, but the Romans were brutes and they loved concrete, so forget them.  The Greeks gave us theater and geometry and philosophy.

Many years later, when I was teaching high school, my students would ask what foreign language I took in college.  “Say something in Greek!” someone would always cry.

“Ho bous macros esti en toi agroi,” I would always say.  That was the first sentence we read in ancient Greek, and it stuck with me, for sure.

“What does that mean?” they ask, delighted.

“The big ox is in the field,” I reply, and they frown, considering it unlikely that they will have the opportunity to use that sentence living, as they do, in a medium-sized city that hasn’t seen an ox for quite a while.

Under the water, you never see them coming.  Then they snap.  Like me, hippos are vegetarians.  They eat grain, grass, hay, fruit, and veggies.  Same as me.  They need to surface frequently to breathe, but they can do that without waking from their sleep.  You don’t know where they are, and they want to be peaceful, but they are also the most dangerous animals in Africa.

There were many things my parents denied me as a child, including a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, a Lite Brite, and Hungry, Hungry Hippos.  Sure, I don’t like Sno-Cones.  A Lite Brite was rather compositionally limited with its dots.  But would my sisters and I have come to blows over Hungry, Hungry Hippos?


Four pastel-colored hippos hunker down on each corner of a plastic square.  White marbles (which my sisters and I would almost immediately have lost) are launched into the middle of this tray, and by punching a black lever, your chosen hippo will reach its neck out and then snap his head down, ideally trapping a marble.  The head pulls back, depositing the marble you might have gotten into that hippo’s personal holding tank.  The hippo with the most marbles wins.  It’s such a clear reenactment of the sibling rivalry issue that it’s kind of appalling that it would be marketed to children.

At the Kansas City Zoo, our hippos are named Liberty and Labor Day, I presume as some kind of sick joke, since they are never at liberty, and never permitted the honest pleasures of labor.  Every night, their 15-foot pool of water is drained, and they are put to bed.  In the morning, it is refilled, and they return to doing the main thing that hippos do, being underwater.   I’ve seen them before, and I know someone in my family said, “Hippos are actually the most dangerous animals in Africa,” because that’s how we are.

Once, two 14-year-old boys from St. Louis climbed the fence and threw rocks at Liberty and Labor Day.  According to news reports, they were trying to impress some girls.  Girls love it when you taunt dangerous animals.  They were back on the right side of the fence before authorities arrived.  Liberty and Labor Day were unharmed.  The zoo still pressed charges.

What have we all learned from this time with the noble hippo?

1. Don’t sweat.  Go underwater and don’t forget to breathe.

2. Don’t mess with hippo-like people.  Don’t climb in with them, for God’s sake, not even to impress a girl.

3. The Greeks were better than the Romans.  Better in bed, too.

4. What looks like blood, a wound, might be just the protective measures of a body protecting itself.  Don’t panic.

5. Don’t buy your kids all the toys they want. What will they have to long for?

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