“Raccoon”: an etymological show of hands?

Earlier this week, a raccoon dramatically scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minnesota. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) captured the event—and the attention and hearts of the internet. The #MPRRaccoon, as it came to be called, eventually summited the building, where it was caught and released into the wild, but not before going viral first. 

This courageous climber truly lived up to its name, though, for the ultimate origin of the word raccoon its all about the hands.

“Clean-handed” roots

The first tracks raccoon left in the English language comes in Captain John Smith’s 1608 True Relation, an account of the Virginia Colony. In one passage, Smith describes a scene at Werowocomoco, the headquarters of Powhatan, a powerful leader of the Virginia Algonquian peoples:

Arriving at Weramocomoco, their Emperour proudly lying uppon a Bedstead a foote high, upon tenne or twelve Mattes, richly hung with manie Chaynes of great Pearles about his necke, and covered with a great Covering of Rahaughcums.

That “Covering of Rahaughcums” means dressed raccoon skins. (Sorry, #MPRRaccoon, your earliest evidence refers to your hide.) And that Rahaughcums is the English attempt at aroughcun, the native Virginia Algonquian name for the bushy-tailed mammal.

The Virginia Algonquian aroughcun is said to literally mean “he scratches with his hands.” Barnhart’s etymological dictionary offers that the name is perhaps because of the animal’s “habit of leaving long scratches on the trees he climbs or in reference to its hands in hunting shellfish and insects.”

The word for raccoon in other Germanic languages opt for a different hand behavior: the German Waschbär, the Dutch wasbeer, the Norwegian and Danish vaskebjørn, and Swedish tvättbjörn all mean “wash bear,” thanks to the fact that the critter likes to douse its food before eating. Other languages have similar watery terms for the animal.

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Wash up! (Pixabay)

1610 brings reference to the animal as such in a description of the “Beasts of the Countrie” in the Virginia Colony’s True and Sincere Declaration of the Purpose and Ends of the Plantation Begun in Virginia:

There are Arocouns, and Apossouns, in shape like to pigges, shrowded in hollow roots of trees. There are Hares and Conies, and other beasts proper to to the Countrie in plentifull manner.

This passage is also our first record for opossum, from the Virginia Algonquian opassom, literally “white dog.”

We’ve seen Algonquian, an extensive language family, before on the blog. Its subgroups have given English many other animal names, including caribou, skunk, moose, and, as previously covered, woodchuck. We’ve also seen John Smith before, as his notes give us the earliest record of swamp and clues that caucus is probably of Virginia Algonquian origin.

Gotta hand it to the raccoon, though. For the internet caucus certainly agreed that the the escapade of the #MPRraccoon was a welcome bit of escape.

m ∫ r ∫

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