Thursday, December 18, 2014

Language of Confusion: Animalia II

My last animal post was pretty well liked, so here’s another! This time we’re looking at small pet mammals.

Mouse comes from the Old English mus, which means small rodent…and “muscle of the arm” (no, I have no idea why). That word comes from the Proto Germanic mus and Proto Indo European mus…well, that’s surprisingly stable. There’s also mice, which comes from the Old English mys. The reason mice is the plural of mouse is because of I-mutation, which is what happened when a bunch of Old English words went from an A, O, or U sound to an E or I sound because of linguistic laziness. Plurals in Old English ended in iz, which means mus would have been something like musiz (I’m just guessing here, so don’t take this as fact). From there, it went to mis, keeping the consonants of the first syllable and the vowel of the second, and then it became mice.

Rat comes from the Old English raet. Before that? No one knows. But there are similar words in other languages—Italian has ratto, German has ratte and Latin has…rat. Hm. Not much of an origin story.

Hamster has an actual date attached to it, appearing in the early seventeenth century from the German hamster (eye roll), and before that it comes from the Middle High German hamastra. There are theories about the word hamster going further back, but nothing definite has popped up.

Guinea pig
So why are these cute little critters called guinea pigs? Well, there’s a lot of debate about that. The name first popped up in the mid seventeenth century. One theory is that they were named because they were first brought to Britain on ships called guineamen (which were popular slave ships…ugh). Theory two is that the country of Guinea in Africa was confused with the country of Guyana in South America (where guinea pigs are from).

Gerbil has an even more specific year, showing up in 1849. It comes from the French gerbille and classical Latin gerbillus, which is the name of the entire genus. Now, 1849 isn’t when the species suddenly popped into existence, so we called them something else before that. They were called jarbuah, which was taken directly from the Arabic word for them. I don’t know if gerbillus and jarbuah are related at all, but they are kind of similar. So…maybe?

Ferret first showed up in the late fourteenth century, making it the earliest word that we have a date for. It comes from the Old French furet, which was a diminutive of another word for weaselly animals, fuiron, which, as you may have read as a factoid at some point, also means thief. Before French, the word was furionem in Late Latin and fur (or thief) in classical Latin. It’s thought trace back to the Proto Indo European word bhor/bher, to carry, the origin word for words with the suffix -fer (which I did a post on way back when) as well as furtive.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. It's interesting to see the Old English, French, and German versions of these words.

  2. So the line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail about 'Your father was a hamster' should not have included hamster during the time of King Arthur?
    Still a funny line.

  3. Actually, I think it was the mother was a hamster.
    Sorry, it's early.

  4. I-mutation, huh. Sounds bad, but what it really amounts to is laziness. Makes sense!

  5. Peculiar origins. I've got family who have ferrets. It's a rather active critter.

  6. Maybe "mouse" is because when you "make a muscle," it looks like a mouse is under your skin.

  7. Fur meant thief? Not, um, fur? I'm going to try to wrap my head around that.

  8. I think Guinea pigs are the cutest out of all of them but I love the word gerbille, that sounds really cool.


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