Saturday, May 5, 2012

More on Squirrel

The Germanic name for squirrel is annoying me. Is it a corruption of the Greek term? Everyone who says so is quoting Cleasby-Vigfusson but were they correct? I tried to look up the Old English term 'acwern'. The 'ac' in front looks like 'oak' and, since so many OE words are compounds and this is supposed to mean 'shade-tail', then wern or weorn should mean tail but I cannot find an entry in the Bosworth Toller dictionary or the Clark-Hall. I have not been able to access the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, although I should. They are definitely past the a's but the entry might not include an etymology of the word or break down the compound into its separate elements. Next week, I will try one more time and then I will give it a rest but in the meanwhile I found some other information.
In a book called Old Names - New Growth: Proceedings of the 2nd Aspens Conference (lovely title) there is this entry by Hans Sauer and Ulrike Krischke on quercus, oak, eiche : acweorna 'squirrel', 'eichhörnchen' should probably be placed here, too: according to Pokorny (p. 13F) its etymological root is not *aig- 'oak', 'Eiche' but *aig - 'swinging (violently)', '(sich heftig) bewegen, schwingen.' Still, secondary motivation in OE might have ben ac. Cf. Kluge s.v. 'Eichhörnchen' who connects the word to germ. *aik-'oak'".
Plus, Anatoly Liberman, who is a professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan, writes a word origin blog for the Oxford University Press and has a book out for laymen that is probably worth buying if you are interested in this sort of topic. Word Origins.... And How We Know Them. He wrote that the first German name for the squirrel was eihhurno and the first part of the word, the 'eih', meant 'oak' or was just 'eih'. In other words, it perhaps had two meanings and associating it with 'oak' does not "militate against good sense". The second part of the compound, he wrote was 'hurn' "coinciding with the word for 'horn' by chance." So the modern German word for squirrel would be 'little oak-horn'. He also pointed out that, although it sounds like an odd name for the wee beastie, the Russian name for squirrel is belka, which the first syllable 'bel' meaning white. I have not seen a lot of white squirrels.
If Liberman is correct, then the comment by Cleasby and Vigfusson is questionable. We shall have to wait until I get a chance to see what the entry in the DOE is. Meanwhile, here is a link to Liberman's blog. There are some choice words discussed in the recent past.


Chris said...

For what it's worth, the Rev. Skeat, writing c. 1880, derived "acorn" from the same AS root as "acre," and contended that the word originally meant "fruit of the field." (See Latin "ager.") He denied any etymological connection with "oak" or "corn."

He mentioned the possible Greek root meaning of "squirrel" as "shadow-tail" but was unconvinced, though he didn't question that the word was originally Greek.

Anachronist said...

I see the etymology of this word is a pet peeve of yours ;) Keep digging!

The Red Witch said...

@He denied any etymological connection with "oak" or "corn."

Who wants to argue with Gudbrand Vigfusson or Joseph Grimm? Those guys are still viewed as giants whereas the Reverend, while I support the layman's right to speculate, had not made his mark in philology.

@I see the etymology of this word is a pet peeve of yours.

Not the Modern English word for squirrel, the Old English word which survived into Middle English as 'aquerna' and then disappeared. It is that one entry from the Old Icelandic dictionary that is bothering me.

Chris said...

The Rev. was no layman. He was the author of An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, which is still in print and highly regarded, and was one of the most eminent philologists and medievalists of his day. He was also a ferocious grump, at least in things philological, so be careful what you say lest you rile up his ghost!

The Red Witch said...

@He was the author of An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

Ah, he wrote about Middle English. I haven't studied a whole lot of Middle English, perhaps why I haven't come across him.

@so be careful what you say lest you rile up his ghost!

Yes, those Cambridge fellows can be scary. :-)