My eight-year-old grandson was over here playing Scrabble this afternoon; we let him use the Scrabble dictionary to look for words because it’s good for his vocabulary, and when I walked in he had just played the word zoril (and was winning handily). Not knowing the word, I looked it up in Webster’s Third New International and discovered that it was either a striped muishond or a North African muishond related to the striped muishond. This was not a great help, so I looked up muishond and learned that it was “either of two southern African weasels that are black with white stripes and that emit a fetid odor when disturbed.” All right then! But the interesting thing is that both odd-looking names are perfectly transparent when you know their etymologies; zoril, more commonly zorilla, is from a diminutive of Spanish zorro ‘fox,’ and muishond (pronounced /ˈmeɪs(h)ɔnt/ “MACE-haunt” because it’s Afrikaans in origin, from “transferred and spec. uses of Dutch muishond weasel, stoat”) is literally “mouse-hound”—in fact, the OED sends you to a separate entry mouse-hunt “An animal that hunts mice; spec. a weasel, a small stoat,” an earlier borrowing from Dutch (< muus mouse n. + hont dog; apparently altered after hunt) that goes back to the fifteenth century and was used by Shakespeare (“Moth: I you haue beene a mouse hunt in your time”).


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    From the description I thought this must be much like the skunk but WiPe says it belongs to a completely different family, the Herpestidae, while skunks belong to the (well-named) Mephitidae. And the striped muishond or banded mongoose has the stripes running crosswise rather than nose-to-tail. Remarkable the things this blog turns up–thanks and happy birthday, Hat.

  2. Bathrobe says:

    The Wikipedia article on Zoril is at Striped polecat (Ictonyx striatus), which belongs to the Mustelidae. The Herpestidae refers to the mongooses, but I can’t find any reference to muishond there.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    And the stripes of the Striped polecat go from head to tail, just like the skunk.
    The naming and species seem quite confused.
    According to Wikipedia, there are only two species of Ictonyx. They are
    *Ictonyx striatus (Striped polecat, African polecat, zoril, zorille, or zorilla) and
    *Ictonyx libycus (Saharan striped policat or Saharan striped weasel).
    Neither Wikipedia article refers to a muishond. However, the Free Dictionary at muishond (defined as ‘Southern African weasel’) gives:
    *Ictonyx striata, striped muishond – ferret-sized muishond often tamed.
    *Ictonyx frenata, zoril – muishond of northern Africa.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    Ooops, bit of bad coding there. The linked word was supposed to be muishond, not the entire entry.

  5. Bathrobe says:

    According to this paper on Ictonyx_striatus: Other vernacular names (besides Zorilla) include African skunk, striped muishond, African muishond, striped weasel, striped polecat, iQaqa (Zulu and Xhosa), nakedi (Tswana), kicheche (Kiswahili), stinkmuishond (Afrikaans), band-iltis (German), zorille commun (French), and moufette africaine (French).

  6. Ooops, bit of bad coding there.
    Yeah, you forgot to close the a tag. Hattically fixed!

  7. marie-lucie says:

    moufette africaine (French)
    This must be from a Canadian site. It is the literal translation of “African skunk”, and la mouffette [sic] is the (Canadian) French for ‘skunk’. There are no skunks in France, but ‘polecat’ is le putois.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    @m-l: The French Wikipedia article on skunks is at mouffette. “La mouffette ou moufette, encore appelée sconse ou bête puante (Amérique du Nord)”…
    From the Wikipedia English-language article on the skunk, from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, we find the term Zorillo:
    “We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.”

  9. Bathrobe says:

    Given the appearance of Montevideo in the extract above, the species that Darwin was referring to was probably Molina’s hog-nosed skunk, or Conepatus chinga, which is known as zorillo in Spanish.

  10. The skunk/polecat comparison seems to be an old one. As its Algonquian name indicates, the skunks are purely New World animals, but they have occasionally been called polecats in the U.S. probably since the first colonists encountered one. Black-footed ferrets, which actually are mustelids like European polecats, are also called American polecats.

  11. johnny mofeta says:

    In Spanish it’s spelled zorrillo/zorrilla. “r” and “rr” are very distinct in pronunciation, one is a flap, the other a trill. Zorrillo is the skunk (a synonym is mofeta, which in turn can also mean mohawk, as in haircut), and zorrilla could be either a female skunk or a zoril.

  12. johnny mofeta says:

    Another note on zorrillo: it’s also a name for the tear gas spraying cars used by the military police in Chile during the dictatorship. (I think they still have them.) The water cannons were called huanacos: from Quechua wanaku, a kind of llama, because they spit.

  13. In Spanish it’s spelled zorrillo/zorrilla. “r” and “rr” are very distinct in pronunciation, one is a flap, the other a trill.
    It’s useful to have that stated so clearly. One can even imagine what motivated the orthography: the trilled version has two “r”s because there is more “r” in it, so to speak.
    However, I wonder whether that distinction is in fact inflexibly honored in all versions of Spanish as they are spoken across the world.

  14. >Grumbly Stu
    Yes, that distinction is inflexible in all versions. Besides, as you know, the sound of “r” at the beginning of a word is always “rr” (trill). However, in the middle of a word, the letters and its sounds can be “rr” or “r”. When the sound is “rr” but it is after the prefixes ab-, sub- and post- (e.g. “subrayar”, pronounced as “subrrayar”) or after a consonant that belongs to other syllable (e.g. “israelita”, pronounced as “isrraelita”), we write only one “r”.
    As a curiosity, although we have the words “zorro” (masc.) and “zorra” (fem.), the definition in the dictionary is in the feminine entry; as far as I know, it’s the only case.

  15. Jesús: When the sound is “rr” but it is after the prefixes ab-, sub- and post- (e.g. “subrayar”, pronounced as “subrrayar”) … we write only one “r”.
    Ah, that’s the kind of thing I had in mind, just couldn’t find an example in my brainbox !

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Jesús: zorro/zorra :
    I understand that the basic Spanish word for ‘fox/ is zorra, which is feminine (regardless of whether the animal is male or female – the two look the same anyway). Zorro is a “back-formation” from zorra.
    In most cases, Spanish words which have rr inside (not conditioned by a preceding consonant) are borrowings from Basque, and in that language the ending -rra is quite common (as in pizarra ‘slate’, hence ‘blackboard’). Because of the final a, such words were interpreted in Spanish as feminine.

  17. More precisely, there is no opposition between Spanish /r/ and /rr/ except between vowels. The sound is unified as /rr/ initially or after a closed syllable (one that ends in a consonant) and as /r/ elsewhere. This distinction descends unchanged from Latin, whereas Latin ll (/ll/) has become Spanish ll (, Latin nn has become Spanish ñ, and Latin mm has become Spanish m, the last being the only case where a double and a single letter in Latin have merged in Spanish.

  18. Etienne says:

    Stu: the only variety of Spanish which I know of where the r/rr opposition has been lost is Balkan Judeo-Spanish (I don’t know how the North African varieties stand), which could be argued to be a separate language in any case. In the (rest of the?) Spanish-speaking world the opposition is alive and kicking: the chief source of variation lies in the phonetic realization of the phoneme spelled rr (Normally the r/rr opposition is a lenis/fortis opposition, but in parts of the West Indies the phoneme spelled rr is realized as a French-like uvular r, for instance).
    Marie-Lucie: it would be more accurate to say that Spanish words with intervocalic /rr/ are typically words from some unknown substratum language(s). Even if similar such words are found in Basque, this needn’t, as Luis Michelena (AKA Koldo Mitxelena) pointed out, imply that such words are native to or even ancient in Basque: they might have entered Spanish (or some other Romance variety) from some unknown language (quite possibly wholly unrelated to Basque) and thence entered Basque from Romance/Spanish.
    I believe I had once, on another thread, pointed to the example of how the word SQUAW was first borrowed into English from Wampanoag, and subsequently spread throughout North America *as an English loanword*
    Indeed, your example PIZARRA is a case in point: it cannot be native to Basque, as no native Basque word can have an initial voiceless stop (which is why Latinisms with initial voiceless stops were phonologically adapted in Basque as voiced stops: hence BAKE “peace”, from PACEM, or GORPUTZ, “body”, from CORPUS).

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, very interesting. I had not run into this explanation. Then the name of the province of NAVARRA would also be from the alleged substrate language?
    Regardless of origin (Basque or something else), words ending in a would have normally been interpreted in Latin or early Spanish as feminine, hence the gender of zorra, the generic name of the fox.

    I just looked up the English and French Wikipedia pages on Basque. The English page is stronger on grammar, while the French page gives more (and less critical) information on the very odd, eyebrow-raising hypotheses of relatives of the Basque language.

  20. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: I don’t know specifically about NAVARRA, but interestingly enough a majority of place-names in the Spanish Basque country are non-Basque in origin, a majority being Celtic/Indo-European. Because Celtic/non-Latin Indo-European loanwords are rare to non-existent in Basque, it has been argued that Basque originally was spoken in Aquitaine (where a majority of place-names ARE of Basque origin!) and spread South (into the present-day Spanish Basque country) a few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire (after the Celtic and/or Indo-European languages which left their trace in the toponymy of the Basque country of today had been displaced by Latin. Thus explaining why Latin/Romance is the only major source of foreign loans in Basque).
    I am biased in favor of this explanation, because other languages spoken within the Roman Empire which Latin did not replace (Albanian, British Celtic) also appear to have expanded in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, as I have pointed out (with references!) in a few threads here.
    If you want to learn more about Basque, I cannot recommend Larry Trask’s THE HISTORY OF BASQUE too strongly: not only was he a competent historical linguist, he wrote well (and sometimes entertainingly) too.
    You are quite right that final /a/ in a loanword would be interpreted as feminine, and if the word had a masculine referent you could witness a shift from /a/ to /o/. You can find similar phenomena with native elements in non-standard Spanish: thus, I recently ran into an example of Nahuatl-speakers’ L2 Spanish replacing final -a with -o in EL VIOLONISTA, becoming EL VIOLONISTO whenever the player was male.
    Historically, too, endings which appeared incongruous from a number point of view were reshaped. Thus, modern Spanish AMBOS “both” has Latin AMBO as its etymon, the added -s being due to the seeming incongruity of a singular ending (historically a dual, actually) on a word with plural meaning. Conversely, the Latin word CORPUS yielded, through regular sound change, CUERPOS in Old Spanish, which, because it looked like a plural, was subsequently reshaped to Modern Spanish CUERPO (French was morphologically more conservative, keeping an etymological -s that synchronically made no sense, as CORPS or the English loan CORPSE shows).

  21. Marie-Lucie, Etienne: I am not so sure that Spanish rr words inherited from Latin words are so rare. Tierra ‘earth’ < terra and sierra ‘mountain range’ < serra ‘saw’ come to mind, likewise aburrir < abhorrere and hierro ‘iron’ < ferrum. I further suspect that cerrar ‘close, shut’ is from a Vulgar Latin *cerrare corresponding to Classical serare. And of course there are any number of learnèd words like irrespetuoso and monorritmico and even prorrata, which is obviously just a spelling variant of pro rata.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    JC, it is true that there are a number of rr words in Latin (eg horridus and horrescere) but there are not very many among the basic words. Spanish words like irrespectuoso and monorrítmico are hardly basic, unanalyzable vocabulary. I was not thinking of those kinds of words but more along the lines of pizarra ‘slate, etc’ or cachorro ‘puppy’ (perhaps these words could be identified as “pre-Iberian-Spanish’ if Basque is not involved in their origin? but a name may already exist).
    Prorrata for pro rata: I remember reading in a linguistics textbook an excerpt from a letter written by a barely literate Spanish speaker who wrote things like larrueda (for la rueda ‘the wheel’) or larrecamara (la recámara ‘the bedroom’), by treating the article as part of the word because rr normally occurs between vowels inside a word.
    Back to Basque and Aquitaine: it makes sense that the original Basque territory should have been Gascogne (formery Guascogne, from the Latin name “Vasconia” /waskonya/), which included the mountains, while “Aquitania” referred to a larger, basically flat territory to the North and Northeast of the “Vasconian” mountains. As with so many cases of disruption and consequently refuge among inaccessible places, many Basques could have retreated into and over the Pyrenes and along the mountainous coast of Northern Spain, the areas where the language has survived the longest.

  23. >Marie-lucie
    Although the fox is a wild animal and it doesn’t have a clear sexual dimorphism, I think it’s known enough for everyone so we use the two genders in Spanish for years. Obviously it isn’t the case of others where we use the epicene. Anyway, I only meant that it’s curious to me that that definition is with the feminine gender. Besides “zorra/o” we have “raposa/o”, a word used in Galician as well; there also I always heard “raposa”.
    As for the etymology of “zorra”, our Academy amazingly says: “from Portuguese “zorro”, idler”.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Ooh, that raposa/o is interesting. Do we know where it’s from? Yes, we do, fram rabo “tail” rapum “turnip”.
    But note that the Scandinavian word for fox, rev etc., could be a loan (as *rebaz) from Proto-Finno-Ugric *repäS “fox”. With even an Ibero-Romance lookalike it’s getting weird. There’s also a No. rove f. “tail”, O.N. rófa “thighbone; tail”, which intriguingly isn’t listed by Bjorvand & Lindemann under rauv “arse” (from the same root *rew-p- as Eng. (be)reave).

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Trond, a Spanish form rabo from Latin rapum ‘turnip, root’ is to be expected according to regular rules of change (with Lat /p/ > Sp /b/ between vowels, as in many other examples), but if raposa/o was from the same root it should also have /b/ not /p/ (so “rabosa/o”). But I don’t have another explanation to suggest.
    Words for ‘fox’ tend to be quite different in different languages, and this probably reflects the important role played by the fox:
    (a) it has very valuable, thick fur, especially its spectacularly bushy tail, so it is very desirable to hunt it for its fur;
    (b) once people started to keep chickens and other small animals, these animals became an easy prey for the fox, requiring a constant battle to protect the animals from it;
    (c) whether because of (a) or (b), people would seek to trap and kill the fox but it is very smart and very good at evading traps and hunters.
    Such an interesting animal attracts new names for it because in a hunting culture, animals are thought to understand human language, so using different words (eg words from another language, like zorra if hunters are speaking Latin where ‘fox’ is vulpes) prevents the animal from understanding; alternately, using “nice” words will flatter the animal and keep it from running away.
    These linguistic tricks are well-known and attested from many cultures. The most famous case in Europe is that of the bear, for which there is no common name traceable to Proto-Indo-European even though the people speaking PIE must have been in contact with bears in the forests that covered the European area (unlike most local tree names and many animal names, which are indeed traceable to PIE).

  26. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: I partly agree. Hunting taboos are one cause of name changes involving animals, but there are plenty of others. We must remember that in pre-modern times, when most people lived in the countryside, they could observe animal behavior first-hand, and a great many new terms for animals were originally descriptive or metaphorical in nature. Even in the case of animals which were neither spectacular nor of any economic imporance.
    For instance, the dialectologist Albert Dauzat (whose writings should be required reading for all serious linguists, if you ask me) pointed out that for one kind of Scarab (French: Hanneton) you could find over twenty different terms in different parts of Lower Auvergne: three such terms had entered Lower Auvergne from outside, and the others were local coinages.
    So: why did speakers of Latin in the Northern Iberian peninsula come to use the substrate term ZORRO/ZORRA to designate the fox? I don’t know, and frankly, I suspect nobody does.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    le hanneton
    I have never seen these in North America, but there are apparently some. On Wikipedia they are listed under Melolonthinae in both the French and English pages, but the main pictures (which are different) are (to me) the wrong colours (as well as much larger than the insects): scroll down to smaller pictures and especially the ‘life cycles’ ones to see the brown colour. Another similar species is the “European chafer”, described as an invasive species in North America, one of the insects called “June bugs”. Indeed they appear suddenly in early summer and are only around for a short time. They are slow and heavy fliers, easily picked up, and harmless to people.
    These insects have a more chunky appearance than the other scarabs (carabes, a masc. word), which are thinner and longer, with long antennae. I remember black ones living in woods, and shiny golden-green ones called carabes dorés.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    the fox : of course hunting taboos are not the only reason to name or rename animals, since most of them are not hunted, but using a foreign word (and a substrate word has become foreign to a generation that no longer uses a language) is not the same as making up a descriptive word: it is often due to a hunting taboo since the animal will not understand the foreign language. The fox is both prey and predator, two reasons not to use a word it might understand.
    Of course, the foreign word might itself have had another meaning than just a name for the species: Portuguese zorro ‘idler’ (quoted by Jesús above) may reflect this, since it must have the same origin as the Spanish word.
    In French the old word goupil (from Latin vulpillus ‘little fox’) was replaced by renard which was the name of the fox in the series of animal tales Le Roman de Renard. Renard is the French version of a Germanic name (German Reginhard, English Reginald), so even if the fox heard the stories, they could be about a man called by that name (and similarly for the other animals mentioned in the tales, by a proper name, never by the generic name of their species).

  29. marie-lucie says:

    I mean that Renard (also Reynard and a few other variants) was a personal name a very long time ago, it stopped being used for a person once it became associated with the fox in the tales, although it still exists as a family name.

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