Thursday, December 18, 2014

More critter etymologies

More critter etymologies

Aardvark came to English in 1833 from Afrikaans (a branch of Dutch). It’s a compound Dutch word meaning earth-pig (aard = earth & vark = pig). Big thanks to Paul Fahey for suggesting I look into aardvark.

And thanks to Christine Ahern for asking about raccoon, which came to our language from Algonquian in the 1600s, written raugroughcum in Captain John Smith’s journals. It translates to he scratches with the hands.

Another English word that came from Algonquian is moose, written by various “first inscribers” as muns, moos, mooz and moz. The story is that an earlier form was moosu, meaning he strips off. This referred to the animal’s habit of stripping bark from trees for its meals.

The word penguin first referred to the now-extinct great auk of Newfoundland. Apparently the birds we now call penguins share some characteristics with the great auk. Sir Francis Drake wrote this word into English in the 1570s. The one proposed source is pooh-poohed by most etymologists, but for the sake of interest, I’ll state it here. In Welsh, pen means head and gwyn means white, and the long-gone great auks of Newfoundland had a big white spot between their eyes.

The word slug came to English in 1704 to refer to a shell-less land snail. It was taken from the word sluggard, which referred to a slow-moving & useless person. Though the existence of slugs pre-dates the existence of sluggards (or any people for that matter), we anthropocentric humans labeled those lazy people a good 500 years before labeling the shell-less snail.

Toad came from who-knows-where about the time we started calling English English. It had several forms including tadie, tadige & toadie. Rest assured, hard-working etymologists are – as you read - digging through old manuscripts to solve this centuries-old mystery.

Like toad, barracuda remains a mystery. It arrived in English in 1607 probably through American Spanish from some Caribbean language, but nobody knows but the barracudas, & they’re not talking (it can’t be easy to enunciate through all those teeth).

If an Old English speaker were to have seen what we would today call a hamster, s/he would have correctly referred to it as a German rat. By the 1600s, though, the German word hamster showed up in English, eventually eclipsing the less attractive moniker. It is thought that the German word hamster may have come from a combining of the Russian word chomiak and the Lithuanian word staras. Though my sick and twisted sensibilities wish chomiak meant German and staras meant rat, my sensibilities are dead wrong. Both words mean hamster.

So, are any of you out there celebrating the holidays by wrapping up a German rat for someone you love?

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.


  1. I always learn so much from your posts, Mr. Monger! I suppose I might have suspected aardvark came from Afrikaans (they love those double a's.) But I had no idea we had so many words from the Algonquins. Or that nobody knows why we call a toad a toad.

    And "hamster" good, but I wish we'd kept the word "staras". Hamsters are rodent stars. I can imagine them wearing little Disney princess tiaras.

  2. Thank you, Miss Allen, for the hamster-in-a-tiara image. Nice.