A Mysterious Division of Animals: What’s Your Favorite Category?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: time for something completely different. This is a list that appears in an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in Borges: Selected Non-Fictions.

I have no idea why I love this passage so much, but I do.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into:


(a) those belonging to the emperor;

(b) embalmed ones;

(c) those that are trained;

(d) suckling pigs;

(e) mermaids;

(f) fabulous ones;

(g) stray dogs;

(h) those that are included in this classification;

(i) those that tremble as if they were mad;

(j) innumerable ones;

(k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush;

(l) etcetera;

(m) those that have just broken the watcher pitcher;

(n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

How I love this list. My favorite: “those that are included in this classification.” Also “mermaids.” What do you think…do you find this list thought-provoking, intriguing, or nonsensical?

Thinking about this passage and this list is making me want to go re-read Borges. Where’s my copy of Labyrinths?


  • peninith1

    In light of the infinite self-classification hall of mirrors we’ve just been down earlier this week (oblige? uphold? question? rebel?) this is a delightful provocation with a sort of paradoxically fabulous reality peeking out from behind the shards of the water jar. Thanks!

    • Deborah Avila

      marvelous assessment !

  • In which of the 14 categories do you include yourself, Gretchen?

    • gretchenrubin

      In the present classification!

  • jon

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I adore Borges. He cites obscure, mostly fictional, journals to take you on a journey of dreams, animals, doubles. How does this relate to happiness or the suckling pig (I vote “d” by the way)? Well, I’d say, often dreams have the most beautiful images: I remember flying with great purple wings gilded with gold over cities and towers, breathless. And these images, when captured, say, in a journal, when reflected upon, underline the great mystery of the life we live, and how we should continue enjoying, whether we solve life or not.

  • Beverley

    those that belong to emperors

  • Janet

    Perhaps I am too concrete; I find this list completely crazy!

  • vicmly

    I emailed the excerpt to my husband at work, subject line: Read when you have a calm moment. His response: What is this? If I read it in a book of poems, I’d think it was one of the most brilliant and beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
    That’s my man! Thanks, Gretchen. I love it, too, and am so grateful to have seen it.

  • I love it. My favorite is the sequence, “etcetera” followed by “those that have just broken the water pitcher.”

  • Kamala

    Those that at a distance resemble flies … !!!!

    (Love the whole list and very difficult to pick a favorite.)

  • Leslie Rieger

    I think I like it. It is whimsical and bizarre, and somehow makes me want to laugh and ponder deeply at the same time.

  • Valentine Blacker

    I read this list about 10 years ago in a book about language by Stephen Pinker and absolutely loved it. I think the great thing is how the categories are so bizarre, but every animal fits into at least two of them I was inspired to draw a little illustration of each of them just for fun, I think everyone should try it, it would be amazing to see what everyone came up with.

    ( here’s my drawing, for what it’s worth http://www.deviantart.com/download/227295126/borgesian_animal_taxonomy_by_shininginthedarkness-d3rbq1i.png )

    • Marie

      I love these drawings!!

  • Krista

    oh, I loved Borges in college, and haven’t read any in the 16 years since. Bet they have his books at the library!

  • AliB

    This both delights and annoys me. Delightful are the mermaids and trembling mad animals!! I think the annoyance is at the potential overlap and the two non-categories (this classification (which?) and etcetera) Certainly thought provoking – thanks

  • unadiane

    I love “those who have just broken the water pitcher.” Makes me think of cats. They just walk along doing their thing and, if something ends up broken, it shouldn’t have been there to begin with! It’s not the cat’s fault! “Why did you put that there when you knew I was going to jump up?”
    “Those that tremble as if they were mad,” makes me think of an animal that’s been abused and is just waiting for the next blow, being it a dog, donkey, circus elephant, trained lion, etc. Several years ago at a county fair, there was a traveling lion show. My sister stopped and watched for just a minute. When the trainer just cracked the whip, one of the lions wet itself. That was the end of the show for my sister, because she knew how scared that animal had to be. Heartbreaking!

  • ArtWorks

    This list makes my left brain cranky, but my right brain is rejoicing. No favorite category: what’s wonderful is that the categories cannot possibly be represented by a pie graph (which is what my left brain is whining about).