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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When things get “hairy,” U.S. Presidents like to appoint czars.

Presently, Obama is considering an Ebola czar, but the executive branch post is said to date back to Woodrow Wilson, who appointed an industry czar during World War I. The term, of course, refers to no official title; it has served as a media shorthand for these particular policy coordinators. Most famous perhaps is Nixon’s drug czar. Among many others, FDR had his rubber czar, LBJ his poverty czar, Clinton his AIDS czar, Bush his terrorism czar–the list truly goes on.


Historically, czars–or properly, tsars–were Russian emperors, technically beginning with Ivan III in 1462, formally adopted by Ivan IV in 1547, and ending with the overthrow of Nicolas II during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The word was adopted from Slavic languages, like the Old Church Slavonic tsesari, which ultimately represented the Latin Caesar. The Slavic tongues likely borrowed the word from Germanic languages, such as Gothic’s kaisar (cf. German’s Kaiser), where the term referred to a “king” or “emperor.”  And according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word “is generally held to be the earliest Latin word adopted in Germanic.”

The spelling is unusual. As the OED observes:

The spelling with cz- is against the usage of all Slavonic languages; the word was so spelt by Herberstein, Rerum Moscovit. Commentarii 1549, the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally…


The original Caesar, of course, refers to Julius Caesar. In Ancient Rome, Caesar was his “cognomen,” initially a nickname that evolved into a hereditary addition. The original meaning of Caesar is as lost as his empire, but there is a tradition that it was taken from caesaries, “long, flowing hair,” (Traupman) either due to the fact that Caesar was born with a full head of hair or that his family line was, as was the man himself, prone to balding.

Others argue that the root of the name is from the past participle form of the Latin verb “to cut,” caesus, referring to the legend that the future emperor was “cut out” from his mother’s womb.

Today, a C-section, or Caesarian section is reputedly so derived from the legend–though improbable, as it would have been lethal to the very mother that was alive well into the height of Caesar’s power. And the Caesar in Caesar Salad is named for one, Caesar Cardini, whose given credit for his eponymous dish–concocted, perhaps surprisingly, in Tijuana.

Salad? There was a food czar for that under FDR. Mexico? Yep, Clinton and Obamaborder czars. And these conflicting accounts–how do we regulate all this intelligence? Bush appointed regulatory and intelligence czars. Now, if only the president needed someone to coordinate all these words…

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Ruble. Doodle by me.
Ruble. Doodle by me.

Some etymologies drive the point home perfectly–and others have a way of bringing it all together.

Such is the case with the word loot, which has surfaced–and I think in an insidiously racialized manner–amid the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Its origin, however, is far, far away from the American Midwest.


Loot derives from the Hindi lut, meaning “spoil,” “booty,” or “plunder,” and was taken into English as a result of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

The word is first attested in 1788 in a glossary of Indian words–The Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of impeachment. It was designed to aid Englishmen in understanding native words used in the impeachment of a British governor, William Hastings, accused of corruption in his post in India.

It’s attested again in 1839 in the erstwhile British publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering-word ‘Loot’ (plunder), a sufficient bond of union in any part of India; and in those devastating hordes of cavalry, the Cossacks and Bashkirs would find a similarity not only in habits and pursues, but even in name, the term Cosak being in common use throughout the north of India to indicate a predatory horseman.

Putting aside the rather invidious characterization of indigenous populations, the passage describes one, Amir Khan, a Pathan freebooter in northern India who wielded control over an army of tribal mercenaries. Often commissioned by allies, he would sic his soldiers on enemies, securing their services through the promise of loot–the spoils of war. Khan eventually surrendered to British forces. And, as the author points out, Cossack should indeed evoke the horseback militiamen in southern Russia/Ukraine: They take their name from the Turkish kazak, “free man” or “wanderer.” Kazakhstan is cognate. But we’ll get back to Russia in a moment.


Another Anglo-Indian glossary–this one the famed, 1886 Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursivegives us a little more information on this lut.

According to it, the Hindi lut is taken from its parent language, the Sanskrit lotra, meaning “to rob.” A variant, loptra, is suggested, as well as the word lunt. Lotra, in turn, is from the Sanskrit root lup or rup, “to break.” Other colloquial terms included looty and lootiewallah for “plunderer.”

From here, historical linguistics point us back to the Proto-Indo-European *reup-, “to snatch.” And this root has been much in the news, so to speak.

A volcanic eruption appears imminent in Iceland and clashes are erupting in Africa over Ebola quarantines. Erupt is ultimately from the Latin rumpere (like lup/rup, “break,” “burst,” “split”), traced back to *reup-Interrupt, corrupt, and bankrupt, among others, are also so derived.  

Russian convoys in Ukraine have been disruptive (another example), to say the least. More sanctions were threatened to hurt their rubles. Indeed, ruble is also believed to be from *reup-, from a Slavic root for “hew” or “chop,” referring to the way specific amounts of currency were historically cut off from silver bars.

And many are still feeling bereaved over the death of Robin Williams. Bereave–and its base, reave–are from a Germanic iteration of *reup- for “rob.” Via a French borrowing, rob itself is derived from this as well.

Maybe all this makes you just want to surrender to your bathrobe. But you might want to rip that off, too. Like robrobe is French via the same Germanic root for rob, here referring to “clothes taken as booty.” And rip? Yep, that’s ultimately from *reup-, too.

Ah! What are we to do? Perhaps play with your dog Rover or sate your curiosity and marvel at the astonishing feat of the Mars Rover? Nope. It’s inescapable. Via a Dutch term for “sea-robber” or “pirate,” rover, cognate to reave, is also looted from that same Proto-Indo-European *reup-.

We got a lot of loot out of *reup-.

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