Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Friday, April 24, 2015



This spring our neighborhood has seen a serious uptick in the grey squirrel population, which got me to thinking about the word squirrel, which led to this post.

In the early 1300s English speakers started using the word squirrel instead of the Old English word acweorna. Squirrel came from the Anglo-French word esquirel, which we can trace back through Old French, Vulgar Latin, & Latin to the Greek word skiouros, a word used to refer to – what a surprise – squirrels, though it translates literally to shadow-tailed. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1939 that the word squirrel added to its quiver a verb form, allowing us now to squirrel things away.

The word chipmunk came to English in 1832 from the Ojibwa word ajidamoo, which means one who descends trees headlong. The lack of phonetic similarity between chipmunk & ajidamoo is probably due to the English speakers translating the “foreign” sounds of the people they were busy displacing to sounds they were accustomed to hearing.

Though some marmots live in grasslands, European marmots tend to prefer higher altitudes. The word marmot came to English in the 1600s. We can trace it back through French & Swiss to the Latin murim montis, or mountain mouse.  

The vole lives primarily in fields. The word vole came to English in 1828,most likely from the Old Norse word, vollr, which means field.

We refer to a type of burrowing squirrel as a gopher, a word that arrived in American English in 1812. The Americans most likely borrowed the word from the Louisiana French speakers’ word gaufre, which meant honeycomb or waffle, a reference to the condition of the garden or field after the gopher has claimed it as its own.

Please share any of your rodential thoughts in the comments section.

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


  1. I've always liked the word "squirrel". How nice to know it has such ancient origins."Shadow-tail" is the perfect name for them. Although I like "to squirrel" as a verb, too.

    I loved chipmunks when I was growing up on the east coast. They're so little and cute and colorful. I didn't know they weren't found in the rest of the world, but since we us a Native American word for them, I assume they're exclusive to North America?

    I can't say I've ever met a marmot. They sound sneaky. And gophers...I'm not sure I can think of any kind words for gophers. They certainly do waffle a lawn. And a patio. And destroy all my lovely bulb plants. Don't even plant them any more. Sigh.

  2. Hi Anne - Thanks for joining me in my consideration of rodential words. And you're right that almost all chipmunks are inhabitants of the Americas. Apparently there are some Siberian chipmunks, too, but they don't get much press.

  3. Gophers. Don't get me started on gophers. Interesting that squirrel did not become a verb until 1939. Could it have had something to do with the stock market crash? Did people squirrel away money instead if investing? It seems like a safer choice. A hole in a tree over a failed stock market.

  4. Hi Christine - what a great theory. Your question caused me to dig deeper, & darned if I didn't find an obsolete form of the verb "to squirrel" used in 1589 to refer to the hunting of squirrels (He went a squirreling." I was unsuccessful, though, in finding evidence to support your probable theory.

  5. Interesting post. The only thing I know about squirrels comes from a Sex n the City episode. "They are rats in cuter outfits."

    Now I know better.