For this post, I thought about writing on the etymology of demagogue or bigotry, which have been much in the ether lately, thanks especially to Donald Trump. But I thought twice, important as these words are right now.
I thought twice because I wanted to write on something a bit more positive and, well, fun than many of my previous posts. I thought twice, too, because I wanted to highlight a surprising point of connection between the West and Middle East: gerbils. Yes, gerbils.
See, the name of this common critter, twitching their little noses across so many children’s bedrooms or elementary classrooms, actually derives from Arabic.
Attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in an 1849 text on mammals, English borrowed gerbil from the French gerbille. The French, in turn, adopted it from the New Latin gerbillus, formed as a scientific usage. (Many gerbils fall under the genus Gerbillus). This gerbillus is a diminutive form of gerbo, a variant of jerboa. Gerbil, then, means “little jerboa.”
Jerboa? Have you not met the jerboa?
Attested much earlier than gerbil in a 1662 translation of his ambassadorial travels in the Middle East by German scholar Adam Olearius, the jerboa is a very different rodent from the gerbil. But the two do share a native habitat where Arabic has historically been spoken. And the two also share an Arabic root for their names: yarbūʿ (جربوع), which can mean “flesh of the loins” or “loin muscle” as well as refer to the animal itself. The name, we can imagine, suggests the animal’s “jumping powers,” as Ernest Weekley offers.
The words gerbil and jerboa may have had their bedding in English for some time, but it was not until the 1950s-60s that they became pets for English-speaking people. Apparently, they came to the US as research animals in the 1950s, soon after giving up their laboratory pellets for empty toilet paper rolls; they were adopted in the UK, so it goes, in the 1960s.
Left and right, East and West, Muslim* and Christian? Perhaps the eccentric cuteness of the jerboa – and this surprising connection between the English and Arabic languages– is just what we need to jump our many divides during these times.
*Of course, not all people who are Muslim speak Arabic and not all people who speak Arabic are Muslims, but I think you get my idea.