Chucking out the “wood” in “woodchuck”

This Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil may be feeling that those Iowa caucuses stole his thunder – er, shadow – with all the attention on political prognostication, not marmot meteorology. But caucuses and groundhogs have more in common than just calendars: both caucus, as we recently saw, and woodchuck, another name for the groundhog, derive from Algonquian languages.

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This woodchuck – also called a groundhog and even a whistlepig – is definitely pondering life’s big questions. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woodchuck

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Let’s consult the etymologists.

The answer turns out to be pretty straightforward: None. No, I’m not dismissing the rodent’s timber-tossing abilities: I’m dismissing folk etymology. For the woodchuck has nothing to do with wood, at least as far as its name is concerned.

See, woodchuck, while it looks like a naturally formed compound of wood and chuck, actually derives from Native American languages. Scholars cite the Cree otchek or Ojibwe otchig, among other forms, which were native words for the marten. (Both Cree and Ojibwe are Algonquian languages.) As early as 1674, when the Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word,  traders apparently made sense of the phonetically similar indigenous terms by altering it to the more English-y “woodchuck,” as well as transferring the name to the North American marmot, or groundhog. A variant form is wejack, which also refers to the pekan or fisher, from an Algonquian term that may have further influenced woodchuck.

During the next presidential election cycle, maybe we can take a page from the shared etymological histories of caucus and woodchuck . Forget all the fundraising, debates, campaign rallies, and polls. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter and then the Democratic party will – agh, then we’ll just be arguing over which party is associated with a longer winter.

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6 thoughts on “Chucking out the “wood” in “woodchuck”

    1. I’ve had the tongue twister in my had a couple of days now…! As for “whistlepig,” Scientific American explains: “The name whistle-pig comes from the fact that, when alarmed, a groundhog will emit a high-pitched whistle as a warning to the rest of his or her colony.”

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  1. Thanks for the woodchuck whit, I never thought they could chuck wood worth a darn….I bet a few Native Americans ate them after a cold hungry winter. Would be nothing better than a woodchuck showing up for lunch.

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  2. We don’t have woodchucks or groundhogs in Britain although they do have a Welsh name (“twrlla llwyd”) rather than a calque. So I remember when I heard the tongue-twister for the first time which was probably fairly recent from some American TV show or film it not really making much sense not realising it referred to a particular animal called a woodchuck? In fact if you mentioned Groundhog Day to most people in the UK we wouldn’t know it was actually an annual festival held in Canada and the USA? We’d only be familiar with the eponymous 1993 film and the resulting phrase that has entered the language informally for a situation in which events appear to be repeating themselves in a cyclical often monotonous fashion.

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    1. A number of small towns do hold festivals, most notably Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, though most people just mark the day by hearing/reading a news report from one of those towns, especially Punxsutawney. Thanks to the movie, a Groundhog Day has the same currency here as well. I find it to be a very fine film indeed.

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