Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow

Q&A: Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton

Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow

If you're a person at all familiar with pop culture, chances are you love something LeVar Burton has been involved in. After all, Burton starred in the award-winning miniseries Roots; played the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, Geordi La Forge, in Star Trek: The Next Generation; and was the host of Reading Rainbow for its entire 26 year run. For the past few years, Burton has been hard at work developing and promoting a Reading Rainbow app. But you don't have to take our word for it: We sat down with Burton to talk about adapting the show for tablet devices, the coolest place he's taken Reading Rainbow's cameras, and the worst look he rocked as host.

Why did you think an app was the next appropriate medium for [Reading Rainbow]?
Excellent question. When PBS took Reading Rainbow out of the Ready to Learn lineup in 2009, my business partner [Mark Wolfe] and I saw it as a real opportunity. I’d wanted to be more at the center of the decision-making of the brand for a long time. I mean, I was a producer, but I wanted more. [Laughs] I have a thirst for power! So Mark and I spent about 18 months [gathering] up the rights—they were scattered to the four winds—and we made a deal with WNED, the public television station in Buffalo, New York, that owns the brand. And when Mark and I looked at what we wanted to do with the brand once we’d secured it, we knew immediately that, sure, it was 26 years on television, but what’s next? Television’s only one of the screens that kids today use. Even though television was the main technology we used in the '80s to steer kids back in the direction of literature, clearly if you want to reach kids today, you need to be on a tablet device. Now, having said that, when we started this journey, the iPad had not come out yet. So, we have found ourselves full of good intentions in the right place, at the right time, with, I believe, the right idea.

What are some of the differences in making a book appealing for a television show versus making it appealing for an app? What’s the process of adapting books for the app?
That’s really a great question, because the translation of literature for this medium was a large conversation and a long conversation. And obviously, it was a long and large conversation when the creation of the television series was underway; how do we treat literature? And I know that the style that Reading Rainbow adapted—even pioneered—of visual storytelling, using sound effects and voiceover, a storytelling experience to go with the words—that’s what we were after with Reading Rainbow, and I’m proud of what we’re doing. Did you read any books [in the app]?

I did! I looked at the Houdini book.
And I hoped you noticed that, if you were in the “Read to Me” mode, where you have the narrator read the story, that you were locked out of the interactions until the narrator finished with the page. In the “I Can Read Myself” mode, you have more freedom of access to what we call the affordances of the interactions, the bells and whistles. And no matter which mode you’re in, the interactions are always in service of the narrative. For us at Reading Rainbow, it always goes back to the storytelling experience.

The app itself is really fun. I particularly like the “choose your own backpack” feature.
Did you pretend that you were an 8 year old?

Well, I picked the “age 9 or above” option. I didn’t want to lie. I am 9 or above!
So you liked the “pick your own backpack”…

And I thought that the concept of having different islands was really interesting; why did you decide to incorporate that?
Because the whole idea behind Reading Rainbow is to get kids to love to read. It translated the television series into a Netflix-style app for kids. It was really important to nail two things: one, books, and two, videos, ‘cause that’s what Reading Rainbow was all about. And I think we’ve done that. The reason for the island concept is that the whole idea is to have kids find books that they’re going to be interested in reading, all designed to fuel the passion for literature.

Let's talk about the videos. Are you going out and filming all new videos? Are you incorporating old ones from the TV show?
Yes! On both counts. There are what we call “classic” Reading Rainbow segments—videos with LeVar with long hair, short hair, square hair, no mustache, LeVar bearded, LeVar no-bearded … In 26 years, you get a lot of looks, a lot of opportunities for blackmail video. It’s frightening. It’s scary.

What’s the worst look of yours that made it on to the app?
Well, during my Cameo period, when I was hanging out with Cameo—you know the video "Word Up"? I’m in that video, and my hair in that video is like an anvil on my head. That LeVar is represented in the app, too. I have a very creepy mustache during that period as well. It’s bad.

How often are you out there making videos?
We’re shooting all the time. We’ve been to the White House twice since we launched the app. They let us take the Reading Rainbow cameras into the building where they make America’s money, the old fashioned way—they print it. And that’s the thing about Reading Rainbow—part of what we do in terms of collecting literature to the real world is provide these video field trips, these backstage, all-access-pass experiences to life. That’s an incredibly important part of what Reading Rainbow is. It’s the books and the videos.

What’s the coolest place that you’ve gone for these segments?
In 30 years, I’ve learned how to fly an airplane; I’ve learned how to dive for Reading Rainbow. Being at the summit of Kilauea during a full eruption? Not bad. That was a day that didn’t suck. Standing at the summit of Kilauea with the volcano erupting over my shoulder while I’m addressing the camera and trying to pretend like my heart isn’t exploding out of my chest? [Laughs] It’s awesome. Being the host of Reading Rainbow is probably the best job in the universe, and that’s coming from a guy who was the chief engineer of the starship Enterprise.

You’ve been involved in a lot of projects that are meaningful to a lot of people: Star TrekReading Rainbow, Captain Planet

Roots, which they’re now remaking—why do that?
Well, because there’s a whole generation of Americans who haven’t seen it, and who have a bias against moving pictures and sound that feel dated in any way. My kid is 19, and she doesn’t like black and white movies. She’s in college now, and she’s beginning to get over it, but it was a thing with her growing up; she did not want to see anything in black and white. And I’m like, “You are cutting yourself off from so much richness.”

However, having said that, look: human beings, we can be despicable creatures. We are capable of horrible cruelty to one another. The story of America’s founding is one where slavery—the enslavement of a people—plays critically prominent. And to deny that, to try and forget it, to try and go around it doesn’t make sense. So yeah, if remaking Roots is going to make it accessible to another generation and inculcate them in the language of compassion and humanity, so be it.

Would you say, then, that Roots is the most personally meaningful thing that you’ve worked on? Or is there another project—
That I’m incredibly proud of in a long career that’s spanned decades? [Laughs]

Yes. Exactly.
Out of everything that I’ve done, I believe that Reading Rainbow is the most important. I grew up in a house where reading was expected, and I know fully well the value of a relationship with the written word; I believe that the most powerful creature on the planet is a human being literate in at least one language with a thirst for knowledge. And this is the most powerful tool ever created, technology-wise, in terms of its engagement. Television is incredibly powerful, but this tablet stuff? This is like crack for human beings—the engagement factor. And if we don’t use this engagement in these wonderful tools in the service of educating children, then we’re just dense to the nth degree. We have to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, the intersection of education and entertainment and technology. We have to, ‘cause we’re failing now. We’re failing to get it done. So how can we do it differently, how can we do it better? Use the screens.

What was the process of picking books for the show, and what's the process for the app?
For the show, because we only featured one book per episode, the selection of the featured book was a very complex and arcane process that involved a lot of criteria and consideration. As a sort of Netflix model of books for kids, we rely on our publishing partners to provide us with the books [for the app]. And I have gone out into the publishing industry and to the writers and illustrators community and told them, “You know me. You know how I feel about children’s literature. Share with us your gems and we will treat them as the treasures that they are.”

The thing that I’m most pleased about is that all of the books in the service are real literature. And for me, at the beginning of this journey, we went to the publishers and said, “Give us your back lists. Give us the stuff that you’re not monetizing anymore because there’s no shelf space in bookstores because there aren’t any bookstores anymore.” And they were happy to. And now that they see that, just like the television show, being on the app really does expose their literature to an audience that might not otherwise have found them. It’s a win-win. 

The app is a subscription mode. It’s important to me, because I think with the $10 for all you can eat, I think we’re offering value to families as well. And if you pay six months at a time, $29.99—that’s $5 a month. It’s per tablet, because you can have as many as five profiles in the app for the kids.

We were saying in the office yesterday that Reading Rainbow was sort of like the Oprah’s Book Club for kids.
I suppose that’s true. When we were children, our parents would put us in front of the television set and turn on PBS, and walk out of the room and know that whatever was on—even though they didn’t know what the name of the show was—they knew it was good for you and we were going to enjoy it. And they could get 20 minutes or a half an hour to change their clothes or start a meal or whatever. I know that parents today are stressed to the max, and are inundated with choices that they have to make on behalf of their children every day, and one of the scariest is, “What do I let my kids interact with on these tablet computers?” So I want the Reading Rainbow brand to be there so that parents and kids know that there’s something there that they can trust.

So we’re about a year or year and a half out since the release of the app. How has it been performing?
Ready? Seventeen thousand books a week are being read by kids. It’s insane. You have to remember, kids will come to the tablet to read. To read! To read.

It’s amazing. I’m old school; I like my books. But I think it’s so cool that you can carry a Kindle around and have a bunch of books in there.
I have a library on my iPad. A library.

I guess that’s part of the reason kids are reading so much; it’s all just right there.
It is. I grew up in an age where I took the telephone for granted. For my grandparents, it was not normal. You want to talk to somebody, you get together face-to-face or holler over the fence, you know? Every generation has the technology of the day, and that generation has the responsibility both to adapt to the technology and shape how the technology shapes us. I’m convinced that we can literally revolutionize the way to educate kids if we just put a tablet in the hands of every child on this planet, and make sure that those tablets are filled with age-appropriate content that causes them to want to become lifelong learners.

What are you next steps for the app?
We’re going to the web next, with the product, so that we can be more ubiquitously available. Not everybody can afford a tablet right now, and that web product will definitely serve as the basis for our product offering for schools. Teachers love the Reading Rainbow brand, and boy, do they need help in the classroom. We’ve heard from so many of them since we launched last summer, “When can I get this for the classroom?” Common core requires so much more reading on a broad level. We need these in the classroom, so we’re going to get them there as soon as we can.

A model for schools will first of all be able to handle 30 kids in a classroom, as opposed to five kids as a consumer product, and there will be other changes, but it won’t be a freemium to premium model at all, because the school districts will be paying for the licenses and we’ll be able to make that license accessible to large classrooms, large groups of kids.

Stepping away from the app: What's one book you think every kid should read?
Hmm. Wow. I think everyone should read a book called Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. [Because] at a point in any human being’s life, we come across someone who tends to rub us the wrong way; someone we tend to be at odds with. A nemesis, if you will. An enemy. The hero in this story has an enemy, and his father has a remedy. It’s to make enemy pie. I won’t reveal the ending, but there is a twist that you don’t see coming. It’s pretty cool.

Is there anything you’ve read lately that you really enjoyed or loved or recommend to our readers?
It’s been very rare for me to read a book that I didn’t enjoy. You know what I mean? I think I only ever not finished one or two books in my life, and I think both of them were written by Norman Mailer. [Laughs] But let’s see…what am I reading now? I’ve always got science fiction going, so right now I’m reading a compilation of the best science fiction literature.

I’m old. My memory fails. [Hums Jeopardy theme] I want to be the host of Jeopardy. I really, really do. I really, really, really, really, really, really do.

I’ve never read it, but I have it on my iPad: I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray. That’s next up on my list. I’ve never read that. But I should, right? Isn’t that one of those classics that you should’ve read? Well, now I will.

Everybody needs a good fact or piece of trivia to get a conversation started at parties. Mental Floss sort of prides itself on its collection of trivia, so I’m curious if you have a piece of trivia that you like to use to break the ice or get people talking at parties.
Wow. Um…No. I don’t really have a problem talking to people at parties. But if I did—you know what? Here’s a piece of trivia about me that was revealed earlier this afternoon. I mean, I knew it, but it came as a surprise to the person I was in conversation with when it was revealed. They were asking me about my experience having done Fantasy Island. I did an episode of Fantasy Island, and in that episode, Sammy Davis Jr. played my father. How cool was that? 

We get a lot of weird mail. I’m curious, what’s the weirdest piece of mail you’ve ever gotten?
It was weird to me—it wasn’t weird content-wise—but many years ago, I got a piece of mail addressed “LeVar Burton, USA” from overseas, a piece of fanmail. And I thought, “That’s just amazing. How did this find me?” I was truly astounded. It was literally, like, “Are you kidding me? This was 30 years ago, 35 years ago. 

I'm sure you get recognized all the time. Is there one thing in particular you get recognized for the most?
It depends on the age of the people, really. Generally for older people, it’s Roots or Star Trek. A lot of Star Trek fans out there. You’d be surprised, though, how many Reading Rainbow fans there are. Thirty years of the brand and there’s a whole generation of adults now who grew up watching the show. They’re beginning to have their own kids. And they recognize that in the landscape of television and media, it’s not like when they were growing up. They’re really looking for enrichment materials for their kids that they can trust. And again, it’s another reason I’m really happy to doing what I’m doing right now.

Why a Major Error in 'A Wrinkle in Time' Was Never Corrected

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and thanks to the recent release of a big-budget Disney adaptation, the book is just as popular as ever. The book has earned its status as a modern classic, but according to the Daily Beast, there's something hiding in the text of every copy that is rarely seen in titles that have enjoyed such a long print run. The book features an error that's been reprinted millions of times, and unless you read Greek, you would likely never notice it.

The mistake falls on page 59 of the new Square Fish edition that was published to tie in with the new film. On that page you'll find a quote from Mrs Who, one of the three mystical beings that guide the protagonist Meg and her companions across the universe. Because verbalizing in her own words takes a lot of energy, Mrs Who communicates strictly by quoting great writers and thinkers from history. In this case, she's quoting the playwright Euripides in his original ancient Greek. She follows it with the English translation, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything," but Greek speakers will notice that the two quotes don't match up. The original line in Greek includes words that don't make sense together or don't exist at all.

How was such a glaring error able to go unnoticed in a major work for so long? The answer is that it didn't: L'Engle was made aware of it by a friend of Greek heritage in the 1990s. According to L'Engle's granddaughter, the writer could trace the typo back to the Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, the book she pulled all of Mrs Who's quotes from. While transcribing the Euripides quote by hand she must have omitted a letter by accident. The quote was further removed from the original when the typesetter chose the Greek characters from her manuscript.

Even after hearing about the mistake, L'Engle didn't make fixing it her top priority. Instead she invested her energy into tackling other copyediting issues for the 1993 reprint, like removing all the periods from Mrs Who's, Mrs Which's, and Mrs Whatsit's names. When L'Engle died in 2007, the mangled quote was still standard in new copies of A Wrinkle in Time.

To date, only one English-language edition of the book contains the corrected quotation: the 1994 audiobook narrated by L'Engle herself. But the publishers of A Wrinkle in Time at Macmillan are apparently aware of the error, so the next printing may finally be the one that gets it right.

[h/t Daily Beast]

iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
When German Scientists Tried to Rename Bats and Shrews, Hitler Threatened to Send Them to War
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski

In The Art of Naming (The MIT Press), Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, delves into the art, science, language, and history of taxonomy. There are some 1.8 million known species—and scientists estimate that 100 million more await discovery. Every one will need a name. How does the process work? 

Ohl takes us into the field with the explorers and scientists at the forefront of naming the natural world, including Father Armand David, a French priest who was the first to describe the panda to the Western world; American paleontologists Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who bitterly battled in the Bone Wars; and Polish biologist Benedykt Dybowski, whose unique naming system for crustaceans called gammarids (a.k.a. "scuds") resulted in tongue-twisters such as Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninsuskytodermogammarus) loveni.

In the excerpt below, Ohl tells the story of one of the little-known footnotes to World War II: When Adolf Hitler threatened the German biologists who wanted to rename bats and shrews. And, read on for the best bat nickname of all time: "bacon mouse."

—Jen Pinkowski


On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "Fledermaus No Longer!" the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

"At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names 'Spitzmaus' [shrew] and 'Fledermaus' [bat] to 'Spitzer' and 'Fleder.' Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum […]."

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany's leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital's daily papers, fledermaus and spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for fleder or spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of spitzer, which is a "small implement used for the sharpening of pencils").

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

"In yesterday's newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion."

There's no question that the "responsible parties" understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the "organ of the German Zoological Society"—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal's publishers:

"Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names 'Fledermaus' and 'Spitzmaus,' the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer's directive."

It's conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler's instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the "parties responsible" for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with spitzmaus and fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?


The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, maus, or "mouse."

Fledermaus and spitzmaus … are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (fleder comes from flattern, "to flap"; spitz, or "point," refers to the shrew's pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species, but more on that later.

Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that's the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, "muroids" or the "mouse-like." The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence.

Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don't often encounter them. These animals with the "mouse" base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the fledermaus and spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they?

In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong.

Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means "hand-flier," which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning "slotted tooth"), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The fledermaus and spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon.


One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum's famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research.

In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades "with keen interest," as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle's interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, "How many species of mammals live in Germany?" He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct "technical name," as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is "the" one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word "fledermaus" in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became waldspitzer, zwergspitzer, alpenspitzer, wasserspitzer, mittelspitzer, feldspitzer, gartenspitzer, and hausspitzer. For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to fleder: teichfleder, langfußfleder, wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, wimperfleder.

Pohle's article, which predates the society's 15th General Assembly and Hitler's emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see "the term 'Maus' disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons' wont to lump the animals together with actual mice."

In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something "ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated." Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a "shift in perspective" to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice.

What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term spitz for spitzmaus, but it's already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available.

Pohle wants a name for bats without "maus" but happily with a nod to the animals' flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and "flatterer" or "flutterer" could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. "Flieger" or "flyer," another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups.

But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say "fledermaus," when "fleder" actually makes perfect sense? Pohle mentions that the original meaning of "fleder" was different, but few people were aware of this fact anymore.

On the off chance that he was correct in this assessment, let it be noted that fledermaus can be traced back to the 10th century, to the Old High German "vledern" or "flattern" (the infinitive form of "flatterer"). The image of the bat as a "fluttering mouse" has existed since this time in many languages, including "flittermouse" in English. A number of other German terms exist for bats. In some regions of Germany, such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Southern Hesse, the Old High German "fledarmus" is said to have been used to describe nocturnal creatures, such as moths. There, bats were apparently called "speckmaus," instead of fledermaus, because while hibernating, they could be seen hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.

Pohle's dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the spitzer- and fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.


We can only guess at what Hitler's actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler's hostility toward intellectuals.

It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates "working towards the Führer," as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists' plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as "the Führer's will" and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can't have mattered much whether the "invitation" to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle's suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler's intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize.

In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are "mice." This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It "tags" specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with "mouse-like" animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.


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