or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 22, 2008

Animal Farm

Last night, as we were cleaning up the store, I noticed some chenille yarn and idly thought that that was the French word for "caterpillar", and then I thought, "Yeah, but where does 'caterpillar' come from?" I realized that I had written about the word chenille, among other things (like its namesake, it's a fuzzy, caterpillary kind of yarn, or a pipe-cleaner, which looks even more like a caterpillar than the yarn does), but hadn't actually ever checked out the word "caterpillar".

So here we are!

Any guesses? Anyone? I never would have guessed, because the twists that have brought it to the present day have rendered it dreadfully confusing if not downright unrecognizable.

The second half of the word is unrelated to English "pillar" (which is instead related to "pile" and comes from Latin "pila"); that confusion exists because what I would have thought to be the more logical ending, "-piller", was vetoed by Samuel Johnson, who set the word down as "caterpillar" in his dictionary and thereby cemented it into the language. The "-pillar" of "caterpillar" comes from Latin pilus, "hair", or rather its adjectival version "pilosus", "hairy". This is only right, because a caterpillar is covered with short, bristly hairs.

The first half looks like "cat", and by god that's exactly what it is, too. (The archaic word "cater", as seen in "caterwaul", "to howl like a rutting cat", once meant "tomcat".) The whole construction evidently comes from Old French "catepelose", "hairy little cat".

This, of course, is ludicrous, and yet there's a long, long history of things being named after other things which they may resemble, though in the most superficial way imaginable. A hippopotamus, after all, is literally a "river horse", and how something so resolutely unhorsey got that name is genuinely baffling; the name was enough to throw Herodotus, who, clearly never having seen the beast, nevertheless wrote (on hearsay from Hecataeus of Miletus, who also clearly never saw one) that it

has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse's mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse's neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and tough that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts.

So wrong!

Oh, and one more thing: although in English "chenille" refers to something caterpillary, and therefore etymologically cattish, French "chenille" actually is related to "chien", which means..."dog". (It's from Latin "canicula", "little dog", from "canis", "dog".)


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