This past week I had an unfortunate experience with a squirrel, 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
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.