10 Catty Etymologies for International Cat Day

From German hangovers to Iraqi silks, the English language loves its cats.

It’s International Cat Day, founded, apparently, in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. So, take a break from cat pics and vids online today and enjoy some cat-themed etymologies. Catymologies? Yeah, no, yeah…I think I have to.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m pretty etymology never did. (Pixabay)

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The original “Mannequin” Challenge

For all its motionlessness, the Mannequin Challenge has really had some legs. Since early October, the viral trend, which films people frozen in various poses as if mannequins, has taken over our social media feeds – and workspaces and public places. But why are mannequins called mannequins? That’s a challenge for etymology.    

Little men, and women

In the 1987 rom-com Mannequin, an odd-jobbing struggling artist falls in love with a  department-store mannequin. Such a situation would not have been so unusual nearly a hundred years earlier, when mannequin entered the English language. The word comes from the French and originally named a “live model of clothes,” especially an attractive young woman. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests this usage in an 1893 edition of Illinois’ Decatur Review.

By the 1930s, mannequin donned its current sense: articulated models of humans that display clothes in various stores. For this development, the OED cites Mary Brooks Picken, Scranton-based fashion expert and prolific author, who defined mannequin in her 1939 Language of Fashion: Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Sewing and Dress as the “model of human figure for display of garments, hats, furs, etc.” The French, ever fashion-forward, had already been using such models in the 19th century.

But the shift in mannequin, from person to dummy, is no innovation. Back in the 1530s, English borrowed a similar word: manikin. This manikin, from the Dutch mannekijn and manneken, named a small representation of a person, like those jointed, wooden figures that artists and clothing makers used. The word also doubled as an insult, used to taunt a man as puny or insignificant. Dutch’s manneken also provided French with its mannequin, later lifted by English, as we saw.

Manikins. Or should that be menikin? The Dutch manneken is source of the English manikin (1530s) and the French mannequin, which English borrowed in the late 1890s. Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Next of -kin

In Dutch, manneken literally means “little man,” hence the small models of the human form. The first part, clearly, is cognate to English’s man, a Germanic word with a rich and complex etymology all its own. The second part is a diminutive suffix, also of Germanic origin, that crops up in a few other English words.

Names like Dickens, Jenkins, Perkins, Watkins, and Wilkins feature the suffix, likely as adoptions or imitations of Dutch and Flemish names, the OED observes. A napkin is a “little nape,” or “tablecloth.” A firkin is a “little cask,” technically a quarter of a barrel. A lambkin is a “young lamb.” A bumpkin may come from the Dutch for “little tree” or “little barrel,” which apparently suggests a humorous shortness and stumpiness that came to characterize yokels. (English speakers, cruelly enough, liked to apply bumpkin to the Dutch themselves, the very source of the word). Some etymologists think gherkin, the pickle, and jerkin, the sleeveless jacket, display the diminutive suffix. And -kin, though it has no etymological connection to the word, also influenced the shape and sound of pumpkin.

If a lambkin means “little lamb,” does a “ramekin”mean a “little ram”? The OED hasn’t ruled that out. Image by Alice Carrier, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Speaking of food, a ramekin, from the French ramequin and Flemish rammeken before it, was originally a kind of dish made of toasted cheese and bread, often baked and served in individual portions in a small dish, which came to be called a ramekin. Etymologists aren’t sure about its origin; some connect the first component of the word, ram-, to a Germanic word for “cream,” “cheese,” or even, wildly,  ram, the animal. The second part is, indeed, probably akin to -kin.

Mannequin may mean “little man,” but the Mannequin Challenge, defying its etymology, shows how one little idea can become a huge phenomenon.

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Tico talk

I don’t usually have a taste for kitschy souvenirs, but in Costa Rica, whose beautiful lands my wife and I recently had the pleasure to visit, I couldn’t resist.

See, Costa Ricans – or Ticos, their more colloquial demonym – really know how to market to a very specific segment: tourists obsessed with etymology. Surely, I’m not alone.

My wife and I spent our last two nights in Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San José. We spent some time wandering its Mercado Central, almost as dense and labyrinthine as the lush and misty cloud forests we hiked just days before. Like the Grand Bazaar we wandered in Istanbul or the night markets in Bangkok, the Mercado Central vends its herbs, meats, household goods, clothing, Marian iconography, and casados to locals – and t-shirts, stuffed animals, keychains, jewelry, and knickknack carretas to tourists.

I tried to stay focused on my destination, Café Central, whose coffee was second only to the friendliness of its matronly baristas, but I was waylaid by a souvenir t-shirt:

It’s just not every day a souvenir boasts demonymy and etymology:

Tico t

As mentioned, Costa Ricans are popularly known as Ticos or Ticas. Spanish is lush with diminutive suffixes, such as –ita/-ito (e.g., casa > casita, perrocerrito). But Costa Ricans, apparently, have historically been fond of a different diminutive: –ico/-ica or –tico/-tica, depending on the word. So fond, in fact, that visitors to the country noted it in their speech and thusly nicknamed them. The OED records Tico as chiefly US slang and first attests in 1905. Ticos, as far as I can tell, at some point claimed it as their own.

While I didn’t notice its usage in Tico talk, I did see it employed in a variety of brand names: Teletica, Costa Rica’s first TV company, uses it, for instance. The more formal demonym, which I spotted on official buildings as we drove through the country, is costarricense.

After a memorable cup of coffee at Café Central, we decided to continue winding our away around San José. I opted out of a Tico t; I’d rather spend my remaining colónes on local food, alcohol, and coffee, as well as a few books in Spanish (Hamlet and Malkiel’s Etymology) and a few notebooks.

But diminutives, we should remember, don’t just express smallness; they can also communicate affection.

On our way back to our hotel, my wife had still had a few items she wanted to find for some family members. So, back at the Mercado Central, I enjoyed a coffee at a soda while she perused a few stalls. At one point, she asked me which color of a Tico t-shirt I thought her “nephew” would prefer. I pointed to the blue one.

Like I said, I’m not usually one for kitschy souvenirs, but, in no small part to the lovely culture and climes of Costa Rica, I’ll gladly wear this camiseta. Or should I say camisetica?

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Gerbils (and etymology) will bring us all together

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 jerboaGerbil, then, means “little jerboa.”


Jerboa? Have you not met the jerboa?

Meet the Jerboa. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Except in my state of California (as well as in Hawaii), where you’re not allowed to have gerbils. C’mon, California, I thought we were better than these kinds of bans.

*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.

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