A Dialectal Squirrel.

I ran across a reference to Mandelstam’s 1922 essay Конец романа [The end of the novel] and wound up rereading it; it’s a short and fairly boring analysis of how the novel, which flourished in the 19th century with its focus on individual psychology, was now passé because individual psychology was no longer important. In the first place, that’s a silly way to look at literature; in the second place, most of the essay is written in a formulaic style barely recognizable as Mandelstam’s prose; and in the third place, the novel never died, so the whole idea is moot. (He says the swan song of the classic European novel was Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, which was wildly popular a century ago; anybody know if it’s still worth reading?) However, it comes alive at the very end:

Очевидно, силою вещей современный прозаик становится летописцем, и роман возвращается к своим истокам, к “Слову о полку Игореве”, к летописи, к агиографии, к “Четьи Минеи”. Снова мысль прозаика векшей растекается по древу истории, и не нам заманить эту векшу в ручную клетку.

Clearly, by the force of circumstance the contemporary prose writer has become a chronicler, and the novel is returning to its sources, to the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, to chronicles, to hagiography, to the Chet’i Minei. Once more the thought of the prose writer hastens like a squirrel over the tree of history, and it is not for us to lure this squirrel into a cage.

The last line refers to a very famous passage from the opening of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign:

Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому
хотяше пѣснь творити,
то растекашется мыслію по древу,
сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли,
шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы

For the vatic Boyan, when he wished to make a song for anyone, hastened in his thought over the trees, like a grey wolf over the earth, like a dusky eagle beneath the clouds.

We discussed this passage back in 2011, and there is much back-and-forth in the comment thread about a common but unfounded suggestion that мыслію ‘in thought’ is an error for мысью ‘like a squirrel,’ and Mandelstam is clearly working from that reading — except that he replaces мыс(л)ью with векшей, where векша [veksha] is a dialect word for ‘squirrel.’ He must have liked that word, because he also uses it in the last stanza of a 1937 poem:

И век бы падал векши легче,
И легче векши к мягкой речке —
Полнеба в валенках, в ногах…

The age could fall lighter than a squirrel,
lighter than a squirrel to the soft stream.
Half of the sky is wearing winter boots.
  (Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane.)

So my question for Russian-speakers is: how does the word векша sound to you (if it’s familiar at all)? Is it rustic, amusing, quaint, what? And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any. (We discussed the older word aquerne, from Old English acweorna, here.)

Comments

  1. (I assure you, it is pure coincidence that there are two squirrel posts in a row. I once had three Latin-titled posts in a row, equally unpremeditated.)

  2. Red squirrels are called “boomers” in the Appalachian mountains. I’m surprised there aren’t more words for such common little animals.

  3. 45 years ago I attempted to read Jean-Christophe in English translation several times, and abandoned it each time. I haven’t looked at it since. I assume that it belonged to my mother.

    In Le Guin’s essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (1975), she restates this view thus:

    So then let me play my own enemy for a little, and try to argue the other side: the antinovel, or postnovel, point of view, which says that science fictioneers will never be novelists, and a good thing too.

    From this point of view, the novel, the novel of character, is dead — as dead as the heroic couplet, and for the same reason: the times have changed. Such writers as [Edmund] Wilson and [Margaret] Drabble are mere epigones, draining the last dregs of an emptied cask; such writers as Bhattacharya and Garcia Marquez flourish only because their countries are marginal to the place of origin of the novel, which was late in arriving at the periphery and correspondingly late in dying there. The novel is dead; and the task, the hope, of a new form such as science fiction is not to continue the novel, or to revitalize it, but to replace it.

    There is, really, no Mrs. Brown anymore. There are only classes, masses, statistics, body counts, subscription lists, insurance risks, consumers, randomly selected samples, andvictims. Or, if somewhere beyond all the quantification some hint of quality remains, some wisp of Mrs. Brown, she is not to be reached any longer with any of the traditional tools of fiction. No one can catch her. She has been too profoundly changed by our life, and too rapidly changed. Mrs. Brown herself has attained the speed of light, and become invisible to our finest telescopes. What is “human nature” now, who dares talk about it seriously, in 1975? Has it any recognizable relation to what was called “human nature” in the novel a century ago, which we now see as one tiny, limited fragment of the vast range of human variety and potentiality?

    The subject matter of the novel was the conscious, articulate portion of the minds of certain Europeans and North Americans, mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly middle class, mostly quite unaffected by science and, though affected by technology, totally uninterested in it; a handful of natives intensely interesting to the to the ethnologist because of their elaborate developments of manners, and their extraordinary absorption in interpersonal relationships. They thought their nature was human nature; but we don’t, we can’t. They thought themselves a norm; we have no norm. Through technology, which lets us travel and converse, and through such sciences as anthropology and psychology, we have learned too much about the complexity and variety of human behavior and the even vaster complexity of the human mind, conscious and unconscious; we have learned, that is, that we really know almost nothing at all. Nothing solid is left, nothing to take hold of.

    [Comparison of Dickens’s character Mrs. Gamp with a hard-to-delineate 1975 American analogue omitted.] She doesn’t amount to enough. She is a drifter, a pawn, a fragment, jagged bits of a person never annealed, never grown to a whole. Is there enough of her, indeed, to enter a novel as a real character, enough to paint a portrait of? Isn’t she, aren’t we all, too battered, too changed and changeable, too whirled about, future- shocked, relativized, and inconstant, ever to sit still for a painted portrait, ever to stay still long enough that the slow, clumsy art of the novelist can catch up with us?

    Click, the camera-eye — a moment, not a person, not a portrait, only a single moment implying nothing before or after, no continuity, click. And the whirr of the movie camera, catching the moment as it dissolves into the next, unrelated moment. These are our arts. The technological arts, dependent upon an incredible refinement of machinery and a vast expense of mechanical energy, expression of a technological age. There is poetry, still, but there is no more Mrs. Brown. There are snapshots of a woman at various moments. There are moving pictures of a woman in various places with various other persons. They do not add up to anything so solid, so fixed, so Victorian or medieval as a “character” or even a personality. They are moments; moods; the poetry of flux; fragments of the fragmented, of the changing of the changed.

    Do we not see this foreshadowed in the art of Virginia Woolf herself?

    And what is science fiction at its best but just such a “new tool” as Mrs. Woolf avowedly sought for fifty years ago, a crazy, protean, left-handed monkey wrench, which can be put to any use the craftsman has in mind — satire, extrapolation, prediction, absurdity, exactitude, exaggeration, warning — an infinitely expandable metaphor exactly suited to our expanding universe, a broken mirror, broken into numberless fragments, any one of which is capable of reflecting, for a moment, the left eye and nose of the reader, and also the farthest stars shining in the depths of the remotest galaxy?

    If science fiction is this, or is capable of being this, a true metaphor to our strange times, then surely it is rather stupid and reactionary to try to enclose it in the old limits of an old art — like trying to turn a nuclear reactor into a steam engine. Why should anyone try to patch up this marvelously smashed mirror so that it can reflect poor old Mrs. Brown — who may not even be among us anymore? Do we care, in fact, if she’s alive or dead?

    Well, of course Le Guin does.

  4. I think векша was the name of the smallest coin in ancient Russia. Didn’t know it actually meant a squirrel.

  5. I don’t know whether the New England Transcendentalists count as dialect, but Thoreau told us that the red squirrel was also called chickaree and Emerson’s “Fable” about the mountain and the squirrel gave the latter protagonist as bun (the non-diminutive of bunny, I suppose).

  6. January First-of-May says:

    And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any.

    I’m not really an English speaker, but a Google search attempt turned up scug or skug (supposedly “Hants.” – whatever that means – according to an 1840 dictionary; shows up in many other places), con (said to be “Cumbrian” on one website, but I was unable to find more references – it didn’t help that the word is very common in other meanings), and chickaree (apparently a common term, of onomatopoeic origin, for some North American squirrel species; might not really count as “dialectal word for ‘squirrel'” as such because it appears to be limited to those two or three species).
    Oh, and apparently bun used to refer to squirrels as well as rabbits (as also noted by the commenter above).

    There are apparently also surprisingly many dialectal and otherwise local terms for assorted “ground squirrels” (Marmotini) – which might or might not be included in your “squirrel” category.

    EDIT:

    I think векша was the name of the smallest coin in ancient Russia. Didn’t know it actually meant a squirrel.

    I wondered why that word seemed familiar! IIRC, веверица is another contemporary synonym (i.e. an even more archaic Russian word for “squirrel” that also referred to a small trade value).

    To clarify, both terms comes from the period where coins, as such, were not minted in Russia (or, at least, not in any significant quantities), and foreign coins and assorted other objects were used for trade; so far as I understand, there is some considerable debate whether the low-value trade objects denoted by векша and веверица were actual squirrel skins or not (IIRC, modern opinion is on the “not literally squirrels” side).

  7. Hants. is Hampshire.

  8. The OED historical thesaurus includes cat-squirrel (grey s.), picket-pin (ground s.), mountain boomer (American red s.) and the obsolete calaber (originally the fur, ultimately named after Calabria).

  9. January First-of-May says:

    Hants. is Hampshire.

    That’s what I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure enough to say it definitely.

  10. Native Russian speaker here, Leningrad/SPb born (1969) and bred. To me, векша feels archaic or dialectal (Siberian?), something one may stumble upon in Dal’s dictionary for instance; definitely not a part of one’s active vocabulary. Then again, there exists a surname Векшин (if memory serves it was used in the hugely popular miniseries “Место встречи изменить нельзя”), so there.

  11. To me, векша feels respectably old-fashioned, archaic perhaps; if dialectal, then Northern, from the woods rather than from the steppes. It’s more or less obvious (although possibly wrong) that белка used to denote some other furry animal – squirrels are seldom if ever white.

    I suspect that I learned веверица from Nabokov, who hypothesized its affinity with “vair” (which I had only seen in a poem by Edith Sitwell).

  12. Trond Engen says:

    The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old. There’s an ancient Germanic borrowing in Finnish that shows this brilliantly

    (No references or further details. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m cooking.)

  13. To me, векша feels archaic or dialectal (Siberian?), something one may stumble upon in Dal’s dictionary for instance; definitely not a part of one’s active vocabulary.

    To me, векша feels respectably old-fashioned, archaic perhaps; if dialectal, then Northern, from the woods rather than from the steppes.

    Thanks, that gives me a good sense of it! And thanks to those who supplied English dialect words; the problem with them is that all of them are meaningless except to speakers of the dialect, whereas векша, though archaic/dialectal/old-fashioned, is apparently well enough known to Russian-speakers to be usable in literature. I was hoping for some way to translate it without using “squirrel,” but apparently not.

  14. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m cooking.

    What are you making?

  15. You also hear “tree-rat” sometimes. I don’t know if that helps.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    What are you making

    I’m afraid I must disappoint the Norwegian-American. We eat turkey on Christmas Eve. With rødkål, peas, prunes, and potatoes — and my wife’s waldorf salad. But we’ll have ribbe tomorrow.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  17. Thanks, and god jul to you all!

  18. I thought I’d look into the question of English dialect words for ‘squirrel’. Unfortunately, the EDD Online is now the EDD Offline, and the versions at the Internet Archive are hard to use. I found that Amazon is selling the whole work as an e-book for two bucks, but it’s not searchable. So no luck.

  19. A sad off-topic: it was announced today that Andrei Zaliznyak (Андрей Зализняк) died aged 82. He was a wonderful linguist (who proved inter alia that the abovementioned “Слово о полку Игореве” was a genuine 12th century text rather than a later forgery), and his yearly reports on newly found and deciphered birch bark manuscripts, fortunately still available on YouTube, are a delight to watch.

  20. The equation “small coin” = “squirrel hide” is very old.

    So I guess a hundred squirrel hides are worth a deer hide, or buck.

  21. E. M. Forster wrote an appreciation of the recently deceased Romain Rolland for The Listener. Forster aims to explain why Rolland had been forgotten since just before the first world-war. (What he has to say about Germany and heroes is no doubt colored by this being written in March ’45, in the midst of the second.)

  22. At one point, DARE queried its respondents about the word “squirrel,” but the results suggest that for the more part a squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel. http://dare.wisc.edu/survey-results/1965-1970/fishing-hunting-wildlife/p27

  23. marie-lucie says:

    January: chickaree (apparently a common term, of onomatopoeic origin, for some North American squirrel species

    “Onomatopoeic origin” is often blamed for the lack of possible cognates. I think it is more likely that the word is of American Indian origin. Onomatopoeia, an imitation of a sound or sound sequence is common for names of birds with distinctive cries, but not so much for mammals, even small ones.

  24. A sad off-topic: it was announced today that Andrei Zaliznyak (Андрей Зализняк) died aged 82.

    Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for sharing the news.

    So I guess a hundred squirrel hides are worth a deer hide, or buck.

    Ouch!

  25. The Comparative Siouan Dictionary shows various Siouan languages with ‘squirrel’ words such as Omaha-Ponca sį́ga, and warns, “it looks as if this is a diffused form more than a collection of cognates. Look-alikes in Tunica and Keresan would tend to confirm this latter analysis.”

  26. “Flickertail” is a name for the Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, and North Dakota is called the Flickertail State.

    And California Ground Squirrels are sometimes known as “beach squirrels,” at least in coastal San Diego, due to their dwelling on and in the coastal cliffs.

  27. Thanks, I can see using “flickertail” even if it’s not known to many readers as a word, because it’s transparent enough to give a general idea!

  28. January First-of-May says:

    Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for sharing the news.

    Me too. I just barely missed his annual lecture a few years back, and wanted to visit one eventually.
    I think I got to meet him in person at least once, but I’m not even sure of that…

    I think it is more likely that the word is of American Indian origin.

    This is effectively my default conjecture for weird words limited to North America, but all the sources I consulted said “onomatopoeic”, so I went with that.
    (Mind you, there are plenty of other sources for weird North American terms – both bison and grizzly have perfectly fine European etymologies…)

  29. The one thing about chickaree is that it’s attested as early as 1829 (Fauna boreali-americana, or, The zoology of the northern parts of British America: containing descriptions of the objects of natural history collected on the late northern land expeditions, under command of Captain Sir John Franklin, R.N.). That limits the languages from which the word could have come. That book considers the word an onomatopoeia, based on the squirrel’s call, and lists two native words, neither of which resembles chickaree (“Aroussen. Hurons” and “Annekcootchas. Cree Indians.”)

  30. marie-lucie says:

    January: Mind you, there are plenty of other sources for weird North American terms – both bison and grizzly have perfectly fine European etymologies…

    These two are not what I would call weird: le bison is a French word with nothing odd about it, of Germanic origin according to the TLFI; and grizzly is probably based on grizzled, referring to the silvery tips of some grizzlies’ fur.

    Y: the squirrel’s call
    I will have to bow to the opinion of persons who have heard a squirrel, I haven’t, although I have seen many.

    Chickaree is very similar to chickadee, the onomatopoetic name of a bird.

  31. Grizzly, at least, is perfectly transparent in English.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    rødkål

    Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid.

    (Ten times fast.)

    Called -kohl in the north and -kraut in the south, and Rot- or Blau- in a bewildering patchwork depending on how much acid is involved in the traditional local way of preparing it. If you add apples, as they do in Vienna for example, it turns a redder shade of purple than otherwise.

  33. We call it czerwona kapusta ‘red cabbage’ in most varieties of Polish, but here in Wielkopolska (“Greater Poland”, including the urban dialect of Poznań) it’s modra [mʷɜdrɔ] kapusta ‘blue cabbage’.

  34. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Also in (Upper) Silesia modro kapusta.

  35. Allan from Iowa says:

    My boyfriend’s family (from the West Coast, with roots in Utah and Oklahoma) says “squinny” for the striped ground squireel.

  36. It seems they’ve got squinnies (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus) in Des Moines, too.

  37. A great word — I have to admit I’d be tempted to use it to translate векша!

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Wikipedia has squinney for the singular.

  39. Russian Wikipedia gives векша as a synonym of белка обыкновенная (Sciurus vulgaris). Strangely, it indicates final stress in this word (векша́), which I’m pretty sure is a mistake, perhaps showing that whoever put it there was not really familiar with its pronunciation.

    In Poland we have four species of sciurid rodents: the alpine marmot or świstak (Marmota marmota), found only at high elevations in the Tatra Mountains, two rare and critically endangered ground squirrels (sousliks) of the genus Spermophilus (Pol. suseł, Russ. суслик), and the Eurasian red squirrel or wiewiórka (= белка обыкновенная). The last one, being common, eminently cute and synanthropic, is one of those wild animals that practically every child has seen. I don’t know of any dialectal synonyms (the Old Polish variant wiewierzyca originally referred to the squirrel itself but survived longest in the sense ‘squirrel skin’). The word has been covered here on LH.

  40. Strangely, it indicates final stress in this word (векша́), which I’m pretty sure is a mistake
    This dictionary says you’re right.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve been bold and fixed it. (It still has to be approved.) I had to cite this page, though, because academic.ru is blacklisted as spam…!

  42. I had a vague feeling that I had seen something similar somewhere. As it turns out, it was an inscription saying “Towarzystwo Akcyjne Warszawskiej Fabryki wyrobów Metalowych – Marcin Weszicki” on an old mess tin. (Well, the original inscription is in Russian, which the software won’t let through).

    And now back to linguistics:

    http://lexiquepro.com/library.htm
    Here are some of the lexicons people are making available to be viewed online or downloaded.
    Please let us know when you put your lexicon online or if you know of others that exist by emailing support1@lexiquepro.com.

  43. My grandma called вЕкша my little step sister when she behave bad.

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