Thursday, May 3, 2012


Squirrel the word is just as interesting as the little beastie that wears it for a species name. The Greeks had the honour of naming the squirrel and they called it (without using the actual Greek lettering) skia+oura or 'shade tail'. It made its way into Latin as sciurus and from there into Old French as esquireul and, after the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Norman as esquirel.
It is interesting to me that the German and Old Icelandic names for squirrel are eichhorn and ikorni which seems like the Germanic peoples developed an entirely different name for the species but the Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic-English Dictionary states that it is a corruption of the Greek name which all European languages borrowed. They list acvern as the Anglo-Saxon version but 'ac' is 'oak' and eiche in Modern High German is 'oak'. Maybe 'oak' equals 'shade'? Cleasby and Vigfusson speculated that 'ikorni' in the heathen poem Grimnismal 32 was a later addition and spoiled the meter. As well, that Rata-tösker might have not just been the squirrel's name but also the species name for rati (the climber?( sic.)) and tösker for 'tusk' or 'sharp teeth'. Then the squirrel's name was "Climber the squirrel" but this is speculation on their part.
So, if few Normans came over with the Conquest and England remained essentially Anglo-Saxon, why did acvern not survive? It seems like we kept much of the old Anglo-Saxon words but really we kept only a few hundred common nouns. Most words were replaced by the French terms and squirrel was one of them but it is interesting that the Greeks got to name them because I do not imagine forests when I think of Greece nor do I imagine they have squirrels. Goats, lots of goats, but no squirrels.


Kristin said...

When I saw "acvern", I immediately thought "acorn."

Kristin said...

When I saw "acvern", I immediately thought "acorn."

Chris said...

The Spanish word is "ardilla," from earlier "[h]arda," but before that its origin is in dispute.

One of the best parts of Werner Herzog's movie Grizzly Man is hearing Herzog try to pronounce "squirrel," which he accomplishes, fairly successfully, after a very slight pause during which he appears to contemplate the utter improbability of its combination of sounds. It's also a very tough word for speakers of Spanish who are learning English.

The Red Witch said...

@When I saw "acvern", I immediately thought "acorn."

I did too, but the OE word for acorn is 'ac-cærn' or 'corn of the oak'. I am going to make a stab at finding out more about this word, next week.

@ It's also a very tough word for speakers of Spanish who are learning English.

Interesting. Now where did the Spanish get ardilla when everyone else was following the lead of the Greeks? Mind you, years of Moorish occupation, perhaps it has an Arabic origin.