Inside the etymological cave of “cub”

After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The team fought their way back to victory over the Tribe with all the ferocity and tenacity of their ursine namesake – or at least when that cub comes of age. In honor of the champions, let’s have a peek into the etymological cave of cub.

Cub

The official mascot of the Chicago Cubs is a young bear cub. The Chicago Daily News nicknamed the team the Cubs in 1902, as they’ve been called ever since. But previously, the club was known as the White Stockings, Colts, and even the Orphans.

In the English language, cub didn’t refer to young bears but young foxes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to 1530. It was soon after extended to the young of other animals, like lions, tigers, and bears, who were originally called whelps. We can trace its metaphorical use for an “undeveloped youth” to Shakespeare, “apprentice” or “beginner” to Mark Twain.

While cub appears relatively late in English, its origin is obscure. Many etymologists have attempted a connection to the Old Irish cuib, a “dog,” but the historical record doesn’t quite bear this out. If this is the case, the Irish-based cub would be cognate to canine, cynic, hound, and other Indo-European words for dogs. Others have linked it to the Old Norse kobbi, a “seal,” from a base sense of a shapeless “block” or “stump,” alluding to the clumsy lump that is a newborn seal. This kobbi is related to a Germanic base for “cup” and “head” (think kopf). The Old Norse theory, involving that blobby, baby seal, also resonates with the old myth that baby bears were born without any form and had to be licked into shape by their mothers. 

While the etymology of cub may be obscure, the Chicago Cubs have proven this season that they are anything but – even if it took over a century.

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Go Tribe!

The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs face off in Game 6 of the World Series tonight. As I grew up in Ohio, and as my family hails from Cleveland, I’m rooting for the Indians to bring in their first championship since 1948. Speaking of tribe (and putting aside the team’s racially controversial mascot), where does the word tribe come from?

Tribe

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests tribe in 1327, specifically referring to the 12 tribes of Israel. This tribe, passing into English from French, is from Latin’s tribus, “tribe,” based on Greek’s use of ϕῡλή (phyle) for the biblical tribes descended from Jacob. The Greek phyle, itself meaning “tribe” or “clan,” survives in phylum and phylogenetic, which we may recall from biology class. A tribe was more generally referring to a “race” or national “division” of people by the 1600s, and any sort of “group” by the 1700s.

Now, the earliest use of Latin’s tribus, best we know, named the three, early peoples of Rome, which some scholars consider to be the Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan tribes. The deeper roots of the word are unclear. Many etymologists have suggested tribus joins tri-, from the Latin for “three,” and the ancient root for “to be,” *bheue-. This Indo-European base also yields English’s be and could convey a sense of “growing,” “becoming,” or “appearing,” which might help explain its application to one of those three, founding Roman families. Derivative terms include tribune and tribunal, which we can trace back to tribunus, literally the “head of a tribe” but politically a representative of the plebeian interests in Roman government.

Whoever wins this year, both Cleveland and Chicago fans are no doubt ecstatic that their tribe has – at long last – had representation in baseball’s highest game.

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