On The Bisky Bat

The Bisky Bat was first identified by Edward Lear in his poem The Quangle Wangle’s Hat (1877). It would be more accurate to say that it was only identified by Lear, as nobody before or since seems to have had a word to say of its existence. Believe me, I have done the research.

The initial problem I had to solve was whether “Bisky” was part of the formal nomenclature of this type of bat, or whether Lear was referring to a generic bat, and applying a descriptive adjective. The capitalisation of “Bisky” would suggest the former, though “Bat” is also capitalised in the text, so who knows? If “Bisky” is a general adjective, it is one that has been neglected by the OED and by all the other standard dictionaries. There is a slim possibility that it may have something to do with biscuits, but it is hard to understand what might be biscuit-like about a bat. You might bake a biscuit in the shape of a bat, but that would be a Batty Biscuit, not a Bisky Bat. I concluded, after much furrowing of the brow and smoking quite a few gaspers, that “Bisky” was indeed the formal name of a type of bat.

My knowledge of the world o’ bats is breathtaking. One of my party pieces, which never fails to enliven even the most straitlaced and sober of social gatherings, is to reel off in a dramatic tone of voice a list of bats. I rarely need prompting, and I do not need prompting now. Some bats then: the Asian False Vampire Bat, the Asian Painted Bat, the Big Brown Bat, the Big Free-tailed Bat, the Brandt Bat, the Brazilian Free-tailed Bat, the Brown Long-eared Bat, the California Leaf-nosed Bat, the Common Yellow-shouldered Bat, the Daubenton Bat, the Desert Red Bat, the Eastern Long-eared Bat, the Eastern Pipistrelle, the Egyptian Fruit Bat, the Evening Bat, the Florida Mastiff Bat, the Fringe-lipped Bat, Geoffroy’s Rayed Bat, the Giant Indian Fruit Bat, the Golden Horseshoe Bat, the Gray Bat, the Greater Bulldog Bat, the Greater Horseshoe Bat, the Greater Long-nosed Bat, the Greater Spear-nosed Bat, the Hoary Bat, the Honduran White Bat, the Indiana Bat, the Ipanema Bat, Keen’s Bat or the Northern Bat, the Lappet-browed Bat, Leisler’s Bat, the Lesser Horseshoe Bat, the Lesser Long-nosed Bat, Linnaeus’ False Vampire Bat, the Little Brown Bat, the Long-nosed Bat, the Mexican Big-eared Bat, the Mexican Fruit Bat, the Nathusius Pipistrelle, Natterer’s Bat, the Noctule Bat, the Northern Yellow Bat, the Pallid Bat, the Parti-coloured Bat, Peters’ Ghost-faced Bat, Peters’ Tent-making Bat, Peters’ Wooly False Vampire Bat, the Pipistrelle Bat, the Pocketed Free-tailed Bat, the Pygmy Pipistrelle, Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat, the Red Bat, Rodrigues’ Fruit Bat, the Seminole Bat, the Serotine Bat, the Short-tailed Fruit Bat, the Silver-haired Bat, the Southeastern Bat, the Southern Yellow Bat, the Spotted Bat, the Straw-coloured Fruit Bat, the Surat Serotine Bat, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, Underwood’s Long-tongued Bat, Underwood’s Mastiff Bat, the Vampire Bat, the Western Mastiff Bat, the Whiskered Bat, the Wrinkle-faced Bat, and the Yellow Bat. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have not mentioned, for example, the Demonic Tube-nosed Fruit Bat, Veldkamp’s Dwarf Epauletted Fruit Bat, St. Aignan’s Trumpet-Eared Bat, the Strange Big-eared Brown Bat, Schlieffen’s Twilight Bat, the Tiny Yellow Bat, the Robust Yellow Bat, the Equatorial Dog-faced Bat, the Coastal Tomb Bat, the Buffy Flower Bat, the Hairy Little Fruit Bat, nor the various Smoky Bats. I could prattle on for hours, and perhaps include a diversion where I pointed out the amusing fact that an entire genus of fruit bats is known as the Dobsonia. But no matter how long my party piece lasts, the one bat you will not hear mentioned is the Bisky Bat.

Now this is very odd. Edward Lear was a formidable naturalist, and he would hardly have invented a bat. I can only assume that he spotted one, in 1877 or shortly beforehand, named it, wrote of it, and then went on his merry way, no doubt assuming other bat-mad persons would subject the bat to further study. And yet they did not.

Having reached a dead end in my researches, it occurred to me that I could make profitable use of my time by attempting to draw a Bisky Bat. Now it has to be said that I am a pretty cack-handed draughtsman, and not one of the hundreds of bat drawings I have made in the past bears much resemblance to a bat. I always have trouble with the wings and those little eyes and the complex radar-like navigation system bats rely on to get from A to B. But on this occasion it would not be “me” doing the drawing, for I resolved to enter into a trance and, with my arm suspended, from the elbow, in a sling, and a pencil glued to my fingers, I would commune with a spirit guide. This guide would control the movements of the pencil across the paper. Before sinking into the trance, by means of mystic Blavatskyan breathing exercises, gibberish, and a Brian Eno record, I went for a stroll and a smoke and I wondered if the spirit that communed with me would be Edward Lear himself, or perhaps another Victorian naturalist, one who had also spotted the Bisky Bat but had failed to recognise it properly, and was now taking the opportunity to make amends for his oversight. I would never know, of course, for when I emerge from these trances, my brain is as if wiped clean with a particularly effective disinfectant preparation.

The other thing that happens when I emerge from these trances is that I am confronted with a sheet of paper on which I, or the medium, has scribbled and scraped a formless mess of squiggly quangle wangle. I always forget that, too.

I have not quite abandoned my Bisky Bat research, however. I am now working on the theory that the editors of the OED, and of all other standard dictionaries, have somehow overlooked the word, and that it does indeed exist as a common adjective. All I need do now is to work out what it means.

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