Bruxing and Boggling.

At first, I didn’t think this delightful NY Times story by Andy Newman, about a rescue rat who made it to Broadway, was LH material, but then I got to this passage:

And then Rose did something special. She bruxed, and she boggled. Bruxing is when a rat grinds its incisors together. Boggling, a muscular side effect of bruxing, is when a rat bugs its eyes in and out rapidly, like a possessed vaudeville comic.

They are the ultimate indicators of a relaxed, happy rat.

The OED has only bruxism (entry from 1993), “Involuntary or unconscious grinding or clenching of the teeth, esp. during sleep,” from Greek βρύκειν, βρύχ- ‘to eat greedily, to grind (teeth),’ but a verb brux is an obvious thing to create; as for boggle, the OED has only traditional senses (“To start with fright, to shy as a startled horse,” etc.), but the entry is from 1887. I’m glad to have these new additions to my rat-related vocabulary. And speaking of rat, I hadn’t realized the etymology was so unclear; OED (updated December 2008):

A word inherited from Germanic. Cognate with Old High German rato […]. Compare post-classical Latin ratus, rattus rat (from 12th cent. in British and continental sources […]), Anglo-Norman and Old French rat, masculine (second half of the 12th cent. […]), Old French rate, feminine (second half of the 12th cent. […]), Old Occitan rata (12th cent.) […].

It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa; in any case the ultimate origin is uncertain; perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing. None of the Latin and Romance words is attested before the end of the first millennium, and the fact that the German word has not undergone the High German sound shift suggests that the Germanic group is also late (Middle High German ratz, ratze, German regional (chiefly southern) Ratz, Ratze are secondary, perhaps hypocoristic formations). The word was probably spread with the reintroduction of rats to Northern Europe during the Viking Age (for a discussion of the physical evidence compare P. L. Armitage in Antiquity 68 (1994) 231–40).

A derivation < an ablaut variant of the Indo-European base of classical Latin rōdere to gnaw (see rodent adj.) has been suggested, but seems unlikely in the light of the apparently recent introduction of the word.

A suggested derivation of the Romance words < classical Latin rapidus rapid adj. is no longer accepted, as it would only account for the Italian, which for chronological and historical reasons cannot be the single origin of the whole group.

Thanks, Bonnie!


  1. I’d hoped Anatoly Liberman has something to say about rat in his column. He doesn’t. He does offer some convoluted possibilities for drat.

  2. I’m familiar with bruxing because my dentist accuses of me doing it every time I see him. He persuaded me once to get a nightguard so I wouldn’t brux in my sleep, but the cost was boggling and I couldn’t sleep with the damn thing in my mouth anyway.

    In short, bruxing and boggling do not indicate a relaxed, happy me.

  3. Why is it bruxism rather than bruchism or brychism? Where’s the x from?

  4. It’s an ill-formed modern coinage. Greek has the abstract nouns βρυχή and βρυγμός, both meaning “biting, gnashing”.

  5. But how was it formed? Did the coiner just use x because it looks like χ? Brygmus would be better, like borborygmus.

  6. Beats me. Brygmus would of course be fine, = Greek βρυγμός.

  7. David Marjanović says

    the fact that the German word has not undergone the High German sound shift suggests that the Germanic group is also late (Middle High German ratz, ratze, German regional (chiefly southern) Ratz, Ratze are secondary, perhaps hypocoristic formations)

    Would such nicknames really still be formed this way after the HG consonant shift?

    In his book on the Germanic n-stems and Kluge’s law, Guus Kroonen portrays the situation as much more complicated (p. 222):

    “A paradigm [Proto-Germanic nominative] *raþō, [genitive] *ruttaz is implied by the material from the North and West Germanic dialects [listed on the same and the preceding page]. The consonant variation is particularly rich in the High German dialects, cf. MHG rate, radde, ratte, ratze. The Low German dialects, on the other hand, have preserved the ablauting variant rotte.

    The full grade *a is found in three different root variants. A root *rad- is implied by OHG rato and MHG rate. The variant *rattōn- is more frequent, and can be reconstructed on the basis of OHG ratza, MHG ratze, MLG, MDu. ratte. OE ræt contains the same root, but represents a thematic formation *ratta-. Yet another variant is evidenced by OHG radda, ratta, MHG radde, ratte and G Ratte. Lühr (1988: 284) reconstructed the underlying root as *radd-, but *raþþ- seems more appropriate in view of the fact that, while WGm. *dd changed into OHG tt from the earliest sources, the development of WGm. *þþ into dd and tt occurred within the historic period.”

    and on p. 223:

    “All the different variants can be explained from a paradigm *raþō, *rattaz, [dative] *radeni that was split up […] It follows that the Germanic word must rather have been adopted by the Romance languages as well as by Celtic, cf. Ir. rata, Bret. raz < *ratt- (Lühr 1988: 285), rather than the other way around.

    In addition to the forms with *a-vocalism, an ablauting stem *ruttōn- is furnished by MLG, MDu. rotte, and this is the form that was borrowed into the Nordic languages. Modern Dutch has more or less retained the doublet: the full grade rat is the default word for ‘rat’, but the zero grade is still in use in the compound landrot ‘landlubber’.

    The zero grade can be reconciled with the other forms by reconstructing an ablauting paradigm *raþō, *ruttaz. Diachronically, it seems to continue a [PIE] paradigm *Hrót-ēn, *Hrt-n-ós, which seems to be a mixture of the amphikinetic and hysterokinetic type. The original genitive of this paradigm must have been subjected to some remodeling, as its expected outcome in Proto-Germanic would have been *urt{t}az. Apparently, the Schwebeablaut was removed on the basis of the nominative.

    Etymologically, the old link with Skt. ráditi ‘to scratch, gnaw'[…] must be abolished, because it suggests PIE *Hrod-, whereas Germanic points to *Hrot-. In view of G Ratz(e) “polecat”, it is plausible that the Germanic word originally denoted a different animal, and that it” was later transferred to the later appearing rat as quoted in German from a source from the beginning of the 20th century.

    Personally, I have encountered Ratz (m.) and Ratze (f.), but only in the meaning “rat”. – “Landlubber” in German is indeed Landratte; whatever the word’s origin (seafaring vocabulary goes in circles around the North Sea), someone must have interpreted it as containing “rat” when it was first written down. – What I’ve written {t] is a superscript t: Kluge’s law would have turned *tn into *tt, which would then (still on the way to Proto-Germanic) have become *t immediately behind any consonant.

  8. The earlier Dutch use of “rot” for actual rats (and not just landlubbers) is found in the name of an island off the coast of Western Australia, which is called Rottnest Island. According to Wikipedia, the island was given the name “Rotte nest” (meaning “rat nest” in the 17th century Dutch language) by Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh who spent six days exploring the island from 29 December 1696, mistaking the resident quokkas for giant rats.

  9. marie-lucie says

    Thanks David. A complex word history! So the Romans and Greeks had mice (mus, mys), but no rats? The Latin word for the animal named Rattus norvegicus is a made-up one?

  10. Apparently both the Romans and Greeks used the same word to refer to both mice and rats — and a bunch of other animals too, including in the latter case “a large kind of whale” (?!).

  11. And Monier-Williams gives both “mouse” and “rat” for Skt. mu:sha-, so it seems the polysemy may be of PIE date.

  12. “Boggle” always had the eye-popping connotation for me, can’t really figure out why.

  13. David Marjanović says

    The Latin word for the animal named Rattus norvegicus is a made-up one?

    Probably reverse-engineered from Romance into medieval Latin.

    By the way, there is a Rattus rattus, the black rat. R. norvegicus is the brown rat, more common these days; that’s what pet rats and lab rats belong to.

    “a large kind of whale” (?!)

    The largest species, the blue whale, is now called Balaenoptera musculus, which is explained as a kind of joke.

  14. Funny detail: You could probably not think of two more unlike animals than a rat and a lion, but the noun used to describe the roaring of a lion is βρυχηθμός (from the verb βρυχάομαι), which actually comes from the same root as βρυγμός.

  15. Nascetur ridiculus mus.

  16. Black rats still exist in port cities, especially those with tall buildings, like NYC. They are known here as “roof rats”, because they are willing to climb to the tops of buildings, unlike brown (known here as gray) rats; either type can in fact be brown. Rug rats are another thing altogether.

  17. The brown rat has nothing to do with Norway and didn’t even exist there when it was named Norway rat by a helpful Englishman, John Berkenhout (son of a Dutchman). Many people seem to know that by now, but it doesn’t help tourism* that the most prominent building in most towns is called – as in Germany – the rathouse (rådhus). There’s a theory that Berkenhout may have been thinking of lemmings; there have always been plenty of those in Norway diving off cliffs and so on. They’re called, confusingly, lemens.

    * rats are, of course, our friends

  18. Apparently when the gray rat was new in England it was called the Hanover rat. Thus Boswell:

    I told him, that I heard Dr. Percy was writing the history of the wolf in Great-Britain.

    Johnson. “The wolf, Sir! why the wolf? Why does he not write of the bear, which we had formerly? Nay, it is said we had the beaver. Or why does he not write of the grey rat, the Hanover rat, as it is called, because it is said to have come into this country about the time that the family of Hanover came? I should like to see The History of the Grey Rat, by Thomas Percy, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty,’ (laughing immoderately).

    Boswell. `I am afraid a court chaplain could not decently write of the grey rat.’

    Johnson. “Sir, he need not give it the name of the Hanover rat.”

    Thus could he indulge a luxuriant sportive imagination, when talking of a friend whom he loved and esteemed.

    I’ve never engaged in it myself, but plinking at rats is considered one of the great New York recreations. Keeps them away from the babies, you know.

  19. I might try plinking at landlords if I still lived there. I wonder when ‘Hanover’ rat died out and whether it was used in north America.

  20. Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
    Order: Rodentia
    Superfamily: Muroidea
    Family: Muridae
    Subfamily: Murinae
    Genus: Rattus

    The credit goes to Gotthelf Fischer von Waldheim (scroll down to Fischer) one time professor of Natural History at Moscow U. who created the taxonomy in 1803. (Possibly 1801?) So, yeah, made up, no doubt from his Krautish background

    Truly, the mind boggles.

  21. On further inspection, it seems Fischer had at least one German predecessor. The 1491 edition of Jacob Maydenbach‘s Hortus Sanitatis has an entry for mus as well as rattus, with pictures no less. The rattus is, he writes, a type of mouse, of river and land varieties, like the glis (dormouse) and sorex (shrew), but larger, with poison in its tail. Useful against baldness, of all things (unde et medicisimo ratti ad alopicias utuntur).

    (See also Basil Faber’s 1587 Thesaurus Eruditionis Scholasticae which refers to the Mus maior domesticum, “larger domestic mouse, commonly called Rattus”.)

    And so much for rats et alia.

  22. I can’t find any evidence for the use of Hanover rat in the 19C or later; the term was political, used by those who held the House of Hanover in contempt or disregard. Unfortunately, 18C American texts don’t seem to be in any handy corpora.

  23. marie-lucie says

    BWA: Useful against baldness, of all things (unde et medicisimo ratti ad alopicias utuntur).

    I shudder to think in what manner the rat was used for this purpose.

  24. Trond Engen says

    I read “pinkling at landlords”.

  25. I shudder to think in what manner the rat was used for this purpose.

    He’s a bit fuzzy on that. Which is probably for the best.

  26. The live use, I should say: it still pops up in lists of common names for R. norvegicus, no doubt copied from one another and perhaps ultimately owing their appearance to Boswell’s continuing fame. Note that Johnson thinks it necessary to explain the term even in the late 18C, and it can hardly precede 1714, the accession of George I.

  27. Plinking is one thing, but before öffentliches Pinkeln draw I the line.

    Incidentally in late 1814 the Congress of Vienna began and 1914 was the start of the First World War, so 2014 was the least significant pluricentennial anniversary of something-or-other happening in England since George I came to the throne.

  28. From rats to mice: does anyone have an idea as to why the word for mouse is so unstable in the Romance languages? For such a common animal, I would have expected mūs and its reflexes to be more persistent. I don’t understand why it got replaced so often, as in French souris, Italian topo, Spanish ratón, and even Brazilian Portuguese camundongo. Rat-type words seem more uniformly spread through the family, though perhaps later diffusion is responsible for that.

  29. I’d guess that rats treat baldness by sympathetic magic, the same way people used to put salve not on wounds but on the sharp implements that caused them.

    I thought I had told the true story about rat-plinking, but if so I can’t find it. My building and the buildings near it used to belong to New York City, which did (grudging and incompetent) maintenance work on them. A neighbor who lived in a basement apartment had a hole in his wall that the rats used to scamper across his floor at night. Repeated calls for maintenance, not only by himself but by the local tenant’s union, got him nowhere. So he sat by the hole one night and shot a rat as it passed through the hole.

    The next day, he and various other tenants went to the local maintenance office, dropped the rat’s corpse on the desk of the bureaucrat in charge, and said “What are you going to do about it?” (This was before my time. My wife wasn’t actually in the office at the time, but she was involved with the union. The office was also sent rats by mail, she says.)

    Eventually the hole got fixed, and much later the buildings were extensively repaired and rehabilitated, sold to the tenants on a limited-equity basis, and are now maintained by a tenant-owned (and mostly tenant-staffed) maintenance company.

  30. David Marjanović says

    does anyone have an idea as to why the word for mouse is so unstable in the Romance languages?

    Other basic vocabulary (more basic, like body parts) is similarly unstable there because it was replaced with dysphemisms. That doesn’t quite seem to work in this case, though, does it?

  31. Alon Lischinsky says

    does anyone have an idea as to why the word for mouse is so unstable in the Romance languages?

    Both mur and ratón are attested all the way to Old Spanish, but the former quickly disappears from use around the 15th century. At least part of the reason might be the homonymic collision with mur[o] ‘wall’ (< L. murus).

  32. Alon, any idea why ratón needed to be innovated in the first place?

  33. marie-lucie says

    Y: No doubt because there was no longer a word for something smaller than una rata.

  34. But there was one, mur.

  35. does anyone have an idea as to why the word for mouse is so unstable in the Romance languages?

    Failure to take Latin in school?

    French souris (and Italian sorcio) are from from Latin sorex (shrew)

    Topo from Latin talpa (mole).

    On the other hand, Portuguese camundongo, allegedly comes from Angolan (o)kamundóngo.

  36. Clearly all these words have etymologies. The question remains why they so often displaced the word for ‘mouse’, even resortingto borrowing in Brazilian and outright innovation in Spanish.

    Italian has the doublet topo ‘mouse’, talpa ‘mole’, cognate with French taupe. While the French souris derives from L. sorex, Fr. musaraigne ‘shrew’ preserves Latin mūs (i.e. ‘spider mouse’, because its bite can be venomous).

  37. Shouldn’t a ratón be bigger than a rata? I thought -ón was an augmentative suffix.

  38. -ón is occasionally used for a smaller part of a larger object, e.g. plumón ‘down’, escalón ‘step, rung’, piñón ‘pine nut’. Ratón is still odd.

  39. marie-lucie says

    Latin “sorex”, ‘shrew’ > French “souris” ‘mouse’

    The shrew is an outdoor, rural animal, the house mouse likes (or tolerates) living indoors alongside people (as well as in barns and other places where grain is stored). Perhaps the word for ‘shrew’ was transferred to the mouse when people spent more time in cities and mice (whose name had become ambiguous) followed them there, while the very similar shrews stayed in the countryside.

  40. David Marjanović says

    i.e. ‘spider mouse’, because its bite can be venomous

    Not because it eats spiders? It’s hard to find spiders in most of Europe that are venomous enough for a human to notice.

  41. You have a point, though do people in Europe generally believe that spiders are venomous, rightly or wrongly?
    Is the shape of the compound musaraigne compatible with both interpretations?

  42. marie-lucie says

    Y: la musaraigne : from mus- (Latin) ‘mouse’ and araigne, an old variant of araignée ‘spider’. English equivalent (with normally reverse word order) would be “spider mouse” (not “mouse spider”). The TLFI (French dictionary online) says that there was a belief that the mouse-like animal had a venomous bite, like the spider.

    I think that even some small European spiders have a venomous bite, but not so dangerous as that of spiders in warmer countries.

  43. Though Latrodectus mactans, the infamous black-widow spider, doesn’t live in Europe, other Latrodectus species do, and they, though no real danger to a human being, do have an unpleasant bite somewhat comparable to a bee sting. Similarly, European recluses aren’t as toxic as the brown recluse, but their bites do necrotize, which could be very risky to premodern humans. Scorpions are another story, of course, and they are related to spiders, both belonging to the eight-legged class Arachnida.

    Primo Levi tells of a child who had written a paper saying that insects (insette in Italian) were so named because they had seven (sette) legs. When told that they had only six, he replied airily, “The difference between six and seven is small.”

  44. OED: 1607 E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 535 This Shrew mouse is a little and light creature, which like a Spider climeth vp vpon any small threed, or vpon the edge of a sword.

  45. Alon Lischinsky says


    any idea why ratón needed to be innovated in the first place?

    Perhaps because of the homonymic collision with mur[o] ‘wall’ (< L. murus)?

  46. David Marjanović says

    Small scorpions (with painful stings, I’m told) occur in Provence, but not north of there. I think the same holds for noticeably venomous spiders.

    (All spiders are venomous. Very few can break human skin.)

  47. The most northerly scorpions are found at 51 N on the Isle of Sheppey in the UK, and the most northerly naturally occurring ones at 50 N in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. But these are outliers.

  48. @Alon. Maybe, but homophony is not so troublesome when the two words appear in such distinct contexts.

  49. One could of course go for the linguist’s last resort, assuming a taboo (calling mice by their name would call them upon your food stocks).

  50. I looked into sōrex a bit. Although it is often glossed as ‘shrew’ (or, archaically, ‘shrew-mouse’), all the Latin sources for it which I’ve checked indicate a rodent, souch as a mouse or a rat, or are at best ambiguous. Likewise, Greek ὕραξ (according to Beekes and others, from te same non-IE substrate as sōrex) is glossed as ‘mouse or shrew-mouse’ in Liddell and Scott, but the only reference to it, in Nicander, is clearly to a rodent.
    Reflexes of sōrex meaning ‘mouse’ are not confined to French, but appear in a range of Romance languages: Aragonese, Sicilian, Neapolitan, Rumanian, and Campidanese Sardinian. The simplest conclusion is that sōrex and mūs have existed side by side as rodents going back to Latin, with one or the other reaching greater prominence in its various daughter languages.

  51. Makes sense.

  52. marie-lucie says

    Agreed. Thanks Y.

    There is also French la chauve-souris ‘bat’, literally “bald-mouse”. One of the old Late Latin glossaries (of the “say X, don’t say Y” format) lists ‘calvae-sorices’ along with the older word for ‘bats’ (which I can’t remember at this point).

    Outside of Romance there is German Fledermaus (I think), yet another example of the generality (or generalization) of the ‘mouse’ word.

  53. David Marjanović says

    Greek ὕραξ (according to Beekes and others, from te same non-IE substrate as sōrex)




  54. One of the old Late Latin glossaries (of the “say X, don’t say Y” format)

    Are any of those online? I’m interested in them.

  55. Appendix Probi. It’s not as long as I naively imagined it would be.

  56. Thanks very much! It doesn’t have “equus non caballus,” which I’m sure I saw on such a list decades ago, but it’s got some great stuff.

  57. It does have equs non ecus, which is absurd. Ecus is the expected regular outcome, and eq(u)us has an analogically restored labiovelar.

    And grus non gruis? See (footnote 28).

  58. marie-lucie says

    Yes, Appendix Probi it is. I could not remember the name.

  59. Nevertheless, equus, grus are the standard Classical Latin spellings, and the AP is about how to spell.

  60. It does have equs non ecus, which is absurd.

    o ya then how cum u dont rite like this

  61. In any case, caballus was a properly spelled word of proper Latin, indeed a form used in poetry, so it wouldn’t appear on a spelling-demons list.

  62. There are also morphology and syntax bugbears, not just spelling ones: pauper mulier non paupera mulier, vico capitis Africae non vico caput Africae.

    Theophilus non Izophilus looks mysterious, but the second word may be an error for Ziophilus.

  63. David Marjanović says

    tabula non tabla? So perhaps German Tafel is an example of Bahder’s law after all…

  64. David Marjanović says

    Pāṇini: a a
    Probus: a<> non <>a

  65. Roberto Batisti says

    Another interesting lexical replacement for the Latin ‘mouse’ word is the type (mūs) Ponticus “Pontic mouse”, whose reflexes or derivatives found in several North Italian ‘dialects’, but also in Modern Greek ποντίκι. A Northern (Venetan?) form pantegana ‘sewer rat’ (as if from *Ponticāna) made its way into standard Italian.

    In the dialect of my hometown Bologna Ponticus underwent quite extreme doses of syncope and vowel-shifting as usual, becoming påndg, plur. póndg. The is /ɐ/, normally from older /ʌ/ < /ɔ/, but before nasals the story is a bit more complicated – it became a nasal diphthong of sorts before monophthongizing again. It is still a diphthong in closely related varieties (e.g. påundeg in Modena, some 40km to the northwest).
    Its diminutive/hypocoristic pundghén was chosen as the name of the computer mouse.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    Tony Naden, the doyen of Mampruli linguistics, once showed me his list of IT terminology renderings in Mampruli (of which I now only remember kuuwa “mouse.”) At that time he himself possessed what was probably the only laptop in Ghana north of Lake Volta, so it was perhaps a bit impractical. However, some of his inventions were very funny.

  67. John Cowan says


    A mouse that paddled from South America to Polynesia in the mid-20C, no doubt.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    A Patagonian Welsh mouse, as shown by the reflex of the original initial *q.

  69. John Cowan says

    The best kind of South American mice!

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