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.

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


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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Pope Francis is visiting the US this week. His stances on climate change, homosexuality, divorce, and capitalism, among other issues, have been inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We might say he’s building bridges, a fitting description for a pontiff.

Like a bridge over troubled etymology?
Like a bridge over troubled etymology? “Bridge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Pontiff crosses into English from the French pontif in the late 1500s. The word originally named a “bishop” or any “high priest” but eventually settled on one in particular: the bishop of Rome, or the Pope. French fashioned pontif from Latin’s pontifex, a title which is certainly not ancient history. You can find the Pope on Twitter. He’s @pontifex; at @pontifex_lnhe even tweets in Latin.

Pontifex connects two Latin words: pons, “bridge,” and –fex, a “maker,” from the verb facere. Pontifices were powerful priests in Ancient Rome who helped administer religious law, with the pontifex maximus heading their council, or collegium. Over time, emperors, including Julius Caesar, came to function as the pontifex maximus. Early Roman Catholic bishops borrowed the title in the 4th century, with the bishop of bishops, the Pope, eventually donning the supreme title along with his mitre.

Why bridge building? Ernest Weekley comments that “bridge-building has always been regarded as a pious work of divine inspiration.” Indeed, the Tiber-spanning Pons Sublicius, the oldest known bridge in the city,  was sacred. In his History of Rome, Theodor Mommsen observes that the pontifices:

Derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mysteries of measures and numbers

Eric Partridge adds that ancient Rome was known as the “city of bridges.” Metaphorically, the name works, with priests “bridging” gods and men, which the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, but this may be due to folk etymology, as we’ll see.

Pons also had an earlier meaning in Latin: a “path,” “road,” “way,” or “passage.” Ernest Klein  comments that the original meaning of pontifex was “waymaker” or “pathfinder.” Is this “way” also figurative? Well, Walter Skeat remarks that the early pontifex was “one who leads to the temple” or “leads the way in a procession. Jordan Shipley adds clergy in the Middle Ages helped pilgrims find the roads – and some argue oversaw their very construction – to sacred shrines. All roads lead to Rome, after all.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds pons in the Proto-Indo-European *pent-, “to tread” or “go,” source of English’s path and find and even Russian’s sputnik.

Catholics may deem the Pope infallible, but none of these etymologies are. Pontifex, the “bridge builder,” may be the construction of folk etymology, which changes a word based on mistaken beliefs about its nature. Etymologists, including Weekley, suggest Oscan and Umbrian roots (puntis) meaning “propitiary offering.” Shipley connects this to the Greek pompe (πομπή), a “religious procession,” from a verb meaning “to send.” He goes on to say pontifex was originally pompifex. So, perhaps the more unfamiliar puntis or pompe was altered to resemble pontifex in sound and sense.

This Greek pompe produced the pomp in pomp and circumstance as well as pompous, which may characterize someone who is pontificating. This term began as “to perform the functions of a pontiff,” evolving to its current sense via the dogmatic decrees associated with powerful pontiffs. But for this pontifex, as we are seeing, pomp and pontification don’t build bridges. They burn them.

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