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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, February 1, 2013

How much wood...?

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, when the chubby rodent is supposed to tell us how much longer winter will last.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks, which leads to the question, "What do they have to do with chucking wood?"

Actually, nothing. The word is derived from the native Algonquian names for the beastie. For example, in Cree, the word is  wuchak (though a related southern New England language is the more likely source for the borrowing, which happened in the late 1600s).

When borrowing or using unfamiliar words, people are very likely to re-form them by analogy with words they already know, a process known as "folk etymology".  Groundhogs tend to make their winter burrows in wooded or brushy areas, which may account for English speakers understanding the first part of the Algonquian word as "wood".

The verb "chuck" (throw) was first used to mean "tap someone under the chin", and probably comes from Old French chuquer (later choquer, the source of "shock") meaning "to knock, bump".
The famous albino groundhog from Wiarton in SW Ontario

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.