Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Yesterday, a marmot in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, ostensibly announced that we — and I don’t know who all that we comprises — are in for six more weeks of winter. This is a column about words, so I won’t waste my time or yours writing about what an odd and pointless tradition Groundhog Day is. (It led to the creation of one of Bill Murray’s best movies, which is reason enough for me for its existence.) Instead, I want to focus on what we call that chubby furball that gets dragged out of his hole every February 2.
I don’t mean Phil. I mean groundhog, and the other things this animal is called.
Just as the prairie dog is not a dog and the guinea pig is not a pig (and also not from Guinea), the groundhog is not a hog. The name groundhog arrived in English in the early 1700s as a basic description of what people saw. The groundhog is a burrower, so it was seen coming out of the ground and also rooting around on the ground for food. (They can, however, climb trees to escape predators.)
But why a hog, when (we know now) the groundhog is really a large type of squirrel? I don’t know exactly. There is written evidence that the word hog was used to describe not only swine but young sheep before their first shearing and horses older than a year, but that evidence comes from more than a century before Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, and hog in reference to pigs was pretty well set by the 1700s. Maybe early European settlers just weren’t very creative.
Lending some credence to this argument is that fact that it happened again in the early 1800s. But instead of ground and hog, Dutch-speaking settlers in South Africa used their word for “earth” and “pig” to name a furry, four-legged creature that looks nothing like a groundhog: the aardvark.
Groundhogs go by other names, too. In the Appalachian region, they’re called whistlepigs for the whistling sound they make to warn others of danger. I grew up in the Midwest calling them woodchucks. Sure, woodchucks are herbivorous, but they don’t eat wood or build elaborate structures from it. Which is why this always seemed like a better name for a beaver — a creature known for its carpentry.
Unlike groundhog, though, woodchuck is not a simple compound word. It’s a folk etymology based on what English speakers heard Native Americans calling the animal — or some animal, at any rate, whose name got transferred to this little bucktoothed beast. The Cree word was otchek, and the Ojibwa word was otchig. English-speakers in the 1600s “translated” these words into forms that were more familiar, hence woodchuck.
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