Author: Anthony Poulton-Smith

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Sunday, April 12th, 2015 at 5:02 pm
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Lothian Animal Life

After previously looking at local plant life, Anthony Poulton-Smith examines the etymology of fauna in the Lothian region:

The best-known and most easily recognised animal is the fox. Minor changes in pronunciation can be traced back through time in Saxon vohs, Proto-Germanic fuh, all the way back to Proto-Indo-European puk meaning ‘tail’.

The relationship with the languages of the Indian sub-continent is also seen in the Sanskrit word puccha, with the same meaning. The same reference to the fox simply through its tail is also seen in the Welsh llwynog from llwyn ‘bush’ and in Spanish raposa from rabo or ‘tail’.

BadgerThe badger has only been known as such since the early sixteenth century. It is thought to have come from the black and white facial markings or ‘blaze’ seen as a badge. Earlier it was known as a ‘brock’, borrowed from Old Irish brocc and Welsh broch, both used as an adjective to mean ‘stinking’ or ‘a dirty fellow’. The deer, brought to English by the Saxon deor, was not only used to mean ‘deer’ but originally simply described ‘an animal’ in the sense of ‘not a man’. Further back and we find the root dheu ‘cloud, breath’ and between the two would probably have been used to refer to something living.

The ubiquitous mouse comes from Old English mus and applied to any small rodent and is also the origin of modern ‘muscle’ where it referred to the shape. Note mus is also a Sanskrit word for ‘mouse’ and also ‘rat’, the English origins of ‘rat’ are something of a mystery but may be another ‘tail’ name, as in the Spanish rabo. Our islands’ original lagomorph is the hare, little changed from the original hara meaning ‘grey’ and an apt description of the creature. Nothing is known of the origins of the introduced rabbit prior to the fourteenth century, even then it was only used to refer to ‘the young of the coney’, this being how the rabbit was known until comparatively recently. Note ‘coney’ at this time rhymed with ‘money’. Again the origins are unknown, probably because rabbits (or coneys) were unknown in northern Europe until quite recently.

SquirrelA tail also gave a name to the squirrel, coming to English from Old French escurueil, Greek skiouros which translates to ‘shadow-tail’ – a reference to how the squirrel holds its tail when at rest. Trace the word back further and the earliest reference was not specifically to the tail, for the Proto-Indo-European ors referred to ‘the buttocks’. The bats were originally known as bakke and a name derived from a description of ‘the flapper’. A change to the modern ‘t’ ending is through confusion with blatta used here to mean ‘nocturnal insect’. The moth itself shares an origin with maggot or matha,

A butterfly is traditionally held to have been named from the belief that they were witches in disguise intent on raiding supplies of butter or milk. Watch a bee carefully when it is not flying and you will understand why it got its name from the original Proto-Indo-European bhi meaning ‘quiver’. A wasp may look similar but the only similarity etymologically-speaking is in neither origin having anything to do with appearance. It is believed this began as Proto-Indo-European wopsa meaning ‘weave’ and thus a reference to the appearance of its nest. A similar origin of wegh has given us the suffix of the earwig’s name, this meaning ‘wiggle’ while the first element is a reminder they would be keen to enter a person’s ear.

Examine a beetle closely and you will note the mandibles which have given it a Germanic name literally meaning ‘little biter’. Whilst the ant is seemingly unrelated, its name has virtually the same meaning. Here the Proto-Indo-European mai, which has also evolved to give us ‘maim’, meant ‘to cut’ and thus the ant is ‘the biter off’. Correctly the spider is not an insect but is best listed with the other invertebrates. Perfectly named from the Proto-Germanic spin thron telling us it is ‘the spinner’.

The most common bird seen around the Lothians must begin with the sparrow. In recent years numbers have been declining, although to many of us this would seem highly unlikely. This is due to us identifying other small birds as sparrows and something which is not a modern problem for the origin of the name is Proto-Indo-European spor wo or ‘small bird’. Indeed this root is also the basis for the eventual names of the crows and the starling.

GullIn Latin the kestrel was known for its ‘small rattle’, a sound which led to it being described as crepitacallium and named for its call. Owls are similarly named for their call, the word ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ul. This is not the origin of ‘gull’ which comes from the Celtic family of words and only adopted in English from the fifteenth century (the first known record in a cook book). Prior to this the English knew this bird as a mew, which is imitative of its cry. Most often the eagle is seen soaring on high and silhouetted against the sky. Hence it is no surprise to discover the name simply means ‘dark-coloured’.

TadpoleCold-blooded creatures end our look at local fauna. A snake gets its name from a Proto-Indo-European root sneg meaning ‘creep, crawl’. Note the word snake is also found in the Lithuanian language but here refers to the snail. The alternative ‘serpent’ has the same meaning in the Proto-Indo-European root but is from serp. When it comes to ‘frog’ the modern word is a composite of a Germanic line meaning ‘to hop’, from Proto-Indo-European preu, together with a Latinic line imitative of its croak. Modern ‘toad’ has no known origin, mainly because it has only been known as such since the sixteenth century. Prior to this it was known as a pad, again of unknown origins but still seen, together with pol, in the name of the tadpole which is literally ‘the head of a toad (or frog).

Thus most of those native to the region have been named either for their appearance or for their calls. Simplistic indeed but also quite logical for there can be no better way to recognise them.



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