Otters, hydras and foul-smelling beasts

We’re well into the new year so it’s time for my second etymology post. While researching the etymology of ‘rose’ for an anthropology project, I was overcome by a mad desire to look into the etymologies of as many animals I could think of, so I did. Needless to say, they did not disappoint. I have fourĀ (ish) definitions for you today.

Firstly, ‘bison’ and ‘weasel’. While you would have no idea today, from either the words or the animals, these two words are cognate – meaning they share the same meaning and/or common root. They can ultimately be traced back to the Proto-Germanic ‘wisand-‘, meaning ‘foul-smelling, stinking animal’. We all know weasels are meant to smell pretty vile, but apparently bison smell pretty bad when they’re rutting too, so there you have it.

Secondly, and this is my favourite: ‘otter’. Otter has so many cognates linguists were able to trace it back to proto-Indo-European (the ultimate root language of English, German, Latin, Hindi etc etc). The ultimate root is ‘udros’, meaning ‘water creature’ and has such cognates as ‘utter’, ‘odder’ ‘lutra’ and ‘udrah’ (Swedish, Danish, Latin and Sanskrit respectively). But my favourite cognate by far? Greek: ‘hydra’. Yes, there you go, the mythical beast slain by Hercules is cognate with our beloved otter. Fantastic.

Until next time.

Source is, as ever, the fantastic:

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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