March 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Sneaky Critters

        Animals are a rich field for simile and metaphor, so it's natural that we have a huge number of words that use animal names to describe something else.  There's no mystery in calling someone a pig or saying you feel sheepish.  But English does have some words where the animals seem to have sneaked in where they didn't belong.  What's the dog doing in the dogwood tree?  This month I have for you a handful of words that have ended up with animal names in them just by coincidence.  We'll start with fraudulent felines and go on from there...
        The Greek prefix kata- (meaning "down, against, or back") has provided English with a large collection of words with cats in them, such as catastrophe and catatonic.  But I'm not counting those words, because it doesn't take much reflection to know that these cats are no proper felines.  But some words look like their cats might be a little more plausible.
catamaran - sailboat with a double hull
     You can also sail a catboat, and sailors might get whipped with the cat-o'-nine-tails, so clearly cats abound on the high seas.  But while the cat-o'-nine-tails has a perfectly straightforward metaphorical origin, the etymology of the cat in catboat seems to be uncertain, and the cat in catamaran is definitely no cat at all.  The word
entered English around 1690-1700 from Tamil katta-maram meaning "tied wood."

catty-corner(ed) or kitty-corner(ed) - diagonal
     These are both variants of the original catercornered, which is either from a Germanic root meaning "crooked" or the French root for "four."  Either way, no cats were involved until folk etymology turned the cater into catty around 1830-40.  By 1885-90 the kitty variant was in use, completing the feline infiltration.

crab apple - the wild apple tree or its fruit
       There are two possibilities for this one, too.  The crab in crab apple might come from the same root as the crustacean, the crabbed meaning "crooked, disagreeable"
applying equally to a crab's crooked walk or a crab apple's disagreeable flavor.  (By the way, the word crab apple entered English around 1710-15, but calling the fruit just plain crab is a century older.)  And that lends more credence to the entirely non-animal theory of this crab's etymology.  It might derive instead from an ancient Norse word for the fruit, cognate with Scottish scrab and Swedish skrabba.  In which case the crab really has no business up in that tree among the apple blossoms.

dogwood - small ornamental tree of the genus Cornus
     Here's yet another uncertain etymology.  (Yes, we have a lot of uncertainty in etymology!)  Some theorize that the tree is named for its fruit, which was called dogberry (the tree was called dog-tree before it was called dogwood) because it's not fit for human consumption.  But the animal-free theory is that the first element was originally dag meaning "to pierce or stab" (as in dagger) because the wood of the tree was used for making skewers.  Another name for the tree was actually skewer-wood.  So while the dog might belong under the tree eating those nasty berries, it might actually have crept into the tree disguised as a skewer.

quack (doctor) - fraudulent pretender to medical skill; charlatan
     Here we have a word wherein the sneaky duck is never actually named, but has given itself away because it couldn't keep its bill shut.  Our dishonest quack dates from around 1620-30 and is an abbreviation of quacksalver.  Quacksalver arrived in English in the 1570s from the Dutch kwakzalver meaning "hawker of salve."  And the Dutch word meaning "hawker" derived in turn from its earlier meaning "to boast," or "to croak."  So the duck in quack doctor is just a charlatan, but the thing that charlatans and ducks have in common is that they can both make a lot of unpleasant noise.

[Pictures: Three Little Kittens, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Hermit Crab, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

1 comment:

Pax said...

Fun! Thanks, and I love your two prints.