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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, October 12, 2012

Feeling squirrelly

Mm, mm, tasty! Love the way Wordlady leaves out snacks for me!
It's full-on squirrel warfare at Chateau Wordlady as I try to keep the bushy-tailed bandits away from my newly planted tulip bulbs.

Even while they are driving you other gardeners crazy, though, I'm sure you are wondering, "Where does the word squirrel come from anyway?"

The Anglo-Saxons called them ácweorna (a cognate of the modern German word for squirrel, Eichhorn). Surprisingly, considering that the farming Anglo-Saxon speakers probably had cause to say, "Damn acweorna has dug up my plants again!" quite a lot, this was supplanted by a Norman French word, esquirel. Possibly because squirrel fur was used in the fashion industry, a French preserve, the French word won out.

Esquirel ultimately came from the critter's Latin name, sciūrus, with a diminutive -ellus added on. 

The Romans had got it -- and this is where the story gets cute -- from the Greek skiouros, from skia (shade) +  oura (tail). The shady-tailed ones! How handy that they have a built-in parasol for sunny days.

The evocative verb "squirrel" meaning to stash away (have I mentioned how I love the way English turns nouns into verbs?) is fairly recent, dating from the 1920s.

And in other squirrel trivia, the word was pronounced "SQUARE 'll" until the mid-19th century.

Wordlady's secret Anti-Squirrel Warfare weapon on guard duty..
... and hard at work battling the sciurine hordes


  1. What about the term "squirrelly"?; as in "He's as squirrelly as they come!" (Wacky, nuts, crazy)

  2. ácweorna and Eichhorn look like acorn to me. Is that a coincidence?


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.