While looking up Marie Curie in my trusty Большой Энциклопедический словарь (Bol’shoi entsiklopedicheskii slovar’, ‘Big Encyclopedic Dictionary’), I happened on the entry Кускусы (kuskusy). I assumed it meant ‘couscous,’ but when I looked at the definition, which began “genus of mammals,” I realized I was way off base. It turns out there is a marsupial called the cuscus, “probably from the native New Guinea word for the animal.” I found both the word and the animal charming and thought I’d share them.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find Marie under Кюри (Curie); it wasn’t until I thought of looking under Склодовская (Sklodovskaya = Sklodowska) that I found her, listed as СКЛОДОВСКАЯ-КЮРИ (Sklodowska-Curie) Мария. I wonder whether she’s normally referred to as Mariya Sklodovskaya-Curie or whether a shortened version is used; perhaps my Russian readers can tell me.

Update (Sept. 2022). The OED entry (updated December 2019) has this etymology:

Originally (i) < French couscous, †coes-coes (1756 or earlier) < Dutch koeskoes (1724 as coescoes) < Malay kuskus, probably < a language of the Molucca Islands.

In later use (ii) (in the form cuscus) probably reinforced by scientific Latin Cuscus, former genus name (1826 or earlier in this form; 1798–9 as Cœscoes: B. G. E. de la V. de Lacépède, in Tableau des mammifères 5).
Both the French variant †coes-coes and scientific Latin Cœscoes reflect Dutch orthography, probably following A. Seba Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio (1734) I. 64, which is often referred to in early discussions of the animal (e.g. in the French source of quot. 1775). Seba cites the Dutch word (or perhaps its etymon in Dutch orthography) in a Latin context.

Related earlier borrowing.

Compare the following earlier passage, which may show an isolated early borrowing of the same word (transmitted via French), apparently in an erroneous form; the origin of the error is unclear as there is apparently no corresponding passage in the underlying (shorter) German text:

1662 J. Davies tr. A. Olearius Voy. & Trav. J. Albert de Mandelslo 165 in Voy. & Trav. Ambassadors There is in this Island a kind of beasts they call Cusos [Fr. Cusos], that keeps constantly in trees, living on nothing but fruit. They..have a thick, curling, and smooth hair,..eyes round and fiery, little feet, and such strength in the tail, that they will hang by it.


  1. Though it seems as if the French have claimed her, how do the Poles refer to her?

  2. I happen to have worked part-time in the Marie Curie archives in Paris a few years ago for a short while.You remind me of that particularly pleasant place.
    Marie Curie was never actually a Polish citizen. When she left Poland, there wasn’t any such thing. And through her marriage with Pierre she automatically became a French citizen (as the law was at that time).
    Yes, the French have claimed her, but belatedly. When her affair with Paul Langevin came out, the French government wanted to send her back to Poland (the legal basis for this attempted deportation never was clear to me). It took the protests of her colleagues, via the university establishment (that had strong ties to several politicians, Poincaré among them of course), to get this plan dropped. This happened incidentally right before her second Nobel Price ( there were alledgedly attempts either inside or directed at the Nobel committee not to give her the price since she was an obviously immoral woman… I can’t recall the details right now).
    As far as I can remember, she used the names Curie and Sklodovska-Curie (never a Russian form, obviously) depending on who she was writing to. Official lab correspondence, eg, would have been signed “Marie Curie”.

  3. it’s seldom that my russian is good enough to read the russian things you link to, so i feel called to pedantry here: you mean ‘big encyclopedic dictionary’? of course, if i owned one like yours, ‘big russian dictionary’ is exactly what i’d call it, too. : )

  4. D’oh! That’s what comes of hasty typing. I’ll fix it — thanks!

  5. There is a “Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Sklodowskiej w Lublinie” (which I know of from a Latin reference, where it is somewhat predictably called “Universitas Mariae Curie-Sklodowska“).

  6. Michael Farris says

    In Polish, she’s known as Maria Skłodowska-Curie or Maria Curie-Skłodowska (I’m not sure why both orders are used, but Curie-Skłodowska gets 5600 google hits and Skłodowska-Curie about a 6700).
    I have a Vietnamese language (translated from French) children’s biography of here, in which she’s referred to as Ma-ri Quy-ri and her maiden name is given as Xclô-dốp-xka.
    Of course when I was in grade school she was usually referred to as Madame Curie, leading me to think that Madame was her first name …

  7. I never understood what TS Eliot meant by Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg. Could this be a clue?
    Actually, the dictionary does have Kyuri-Sklodovskaya M.. The entry says “see Sklodovskaya-Kyuri M.” Her maiden name is optional — anyone who knows anything will recognize “Mariya Kyuri” at once.

  8. You’re right — I missed the cross-reference because it wasn’t with the other Kyuris. I’m sure “anyone who knows anything will recognize ‘Mariya Kyuri’ at once”; what I was wondering was how the Russian in the street would normally refer to her. The fact that the main entry was under Sklodovskaya led me to think that that might be how Russians thought of her.

  9. Note that it’s Lines for after several Lines to. I think that Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg are a dog and a cat, respectively. Or perhaps two cats. Of course, the Phalanger maculatus may explain why someone would name a pet CusCus anything. Maybe that’s what you’re getting at.

  10. dungbeattle says

    cus cus, try using the word in Falouja and see what happens.

  11. The above post reminds me of when I was teaching ESL a few years ago to a room full of young Iranians. They were quite rambunctious and taught me several curse words in Farsi including your mother’s a dog, your father’s a dog and shut up, no, you shut up. I remarked to one of them once that I had eaten in a Moroccan restaurant. He turned pale and looked shocked and embarrassed when I mentioned it was couscous that I had eaten. Gues it means something quite different in Arabic and Farsi.

  12. Toby, what an opportunity missed! I’d think you’d ask him what it means in Persian (or should I say Iranian? I recall a while ago there was Iranian from Afghanistan here, explaining proper usage which I can’t recall now), since you’ve already established a good rapport – after all, he already told you how to say “you shut up”, so you could always use it.

  13. By the student’s reaction, it was obvious that I couldn’t ask (and the shut up interchange was between students, actually). I later learned that the word is a female body part, though I speak neither Arabic nor Farsi to totally confirm.
    The world of ESL teaching is so enriching.

  14. My oh my, what a horror you must be to have for a teacher: a woman-> a Jew-> and a cannibal with peculiar tastes!

  15. I’ll see that phalanger, and raise you an armadillo.

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