I just discovered that a squirrel’s nest is called a dray (4,160 Google hits) or drey (826). (Oddly, there are a lot more images under the “drey” spelling.) The OED has the word (“Origin unknown”), but neither the AHD nor Merriam-Webster does (though of course they have the ‘cart or wagon’ word). I just wanted to share the information.


  1. It seems to have been listed in the 1913 version of Webster from “Cowper.” Maybe this is a good etymology question for Michael Quinion of World Wide Words.

  2. Interesting. However, the word (dray) must be archaic now for all practical purposes. I read a recent publication on rodents in my local library and in the chapter on the Eastern Gray squirrel (Sciurus Carolinensis), the author refers to their habitats as “nests”. Eastern Gray squirrels were brought to California during the Second World War along with the possum for the benefit of Southern soldiers in the U.S. military to hunt. By the late 1970’s, they arrived in Washington State and are now quite abundant in the Seattle area.

  3. I too thought it must be archaic, but then why all the Google images? People don’t usually label pictures of things with archaic words.

  4. It’s not at all archaic – I’ve known the word for years, and I’d certainly use it should squirrels’ nests come up in conversation. OK, realistically I don’t move in any circles in which squirrels are discussed with any frequency, and I have no real evidence as to whether those who do would find “dray” current or archaic. But I think I’ve heard it a couple of times on wildlife programmes, and I imagine that anyone who has much to do with squirrels would at least be passively aware of the term, whether or not they’d actually use it themselves.

  5. Tim’s correct. Drey with an “e” is still the proper word for a tree squirrel’s leaf nest, in use by squirrel biologists (I know three of ’em) if no one else. Thinking the word needed a little broader currency, I used it in the title of a back in March.

  6. …the title of a blog post, I meant to type.

  7. I knew I was getting on in years but, I would never describe myself as ‘archaic’! And yes here in England ‘dray’ is used quite commonly as the description of a squirrels’ nest.

  8. Mmm. Yes, hoping I’m far from archaic myself!

    Here in Australia we (wildlife carers and related experts) use the word ‘drey’ (not the spelling ‘dray’, which refers only to wagons, in our minds) to refer to the nests of possums (such as the Ringtail Possum).

    We drew up a label only today for our Environment Centre display, to explain the drey we exhibit to visitors!

  9. The OED has still not updated the entry (from 1897); here are its citations, just for the hell of it:

    1607 E. Topsell Hist. Foure-footed Beastes 497 They..make their nestes, like the draies of squirrels.
    1627 M. Drayton Quest of Cynthia in Battaile Agincourt 141 The nimble Squirrell..Her mossy Dray that makes.
    a1793 G. White Observ. Quadrupeds in Nat. Hist. Selborne (1802) II. 211 Three little young squirrels in their nest or drey as it is called in these parts.
    1889 Eng. Ill. Mag. Dec. 211 [They] lay their eggs in old nests, very often in old squirrel’s drays.

    There are plenty of current uses, as you can see by checking Google Books (e.g., it’s used repeatedly in Squirrels by Trudi Strain Trueit [2012] and Squirrel by Ting Morris [2005]).

  10. ktschwarz says

    Merriam-Webster does have drey, in that spelling (you seem to have only checked for “dray”, and they’ve neglected to cross-reference the a spelling to the e spelling). It’s only in the Unabridged, not the Collegiate. So does dictionary.com, which credits the Collins Dictionary for it; it wasn’t in the Random House. The Century had it as well, but they favored the a spelling.

    From the English Dialect Dictionary:

    DRAY, sb.2 Cum. Nhp. Shr. Brks. Bdf. Ken. Sur. Sus. Hmp. Wil. Also written drey Cum. Sus. Hmp.; and in form draa, draw Brks.1 Bdf. Sus.1 Wil.1 [drē, drā, Shr. also drai.]
    1. A squirrel’s nest.
    Cum. The red-furred squirrels… have their ‘dreys’ in the angles of the boughs, Watson Nature Wdcraft (1890) xvi. Nhp.1 Shr. Ellis Pronunc. (1889) V. 185; Shr.1, Brks.1, Bdf. (J.W.B.), Ken. (W.G.P.), Ken.1, Sur.1, Sus.1 w.Sus., Hmp. Also called a Dodge, Holloway. Hmp.1, n.Hmp. (J.R.W.) e.Hmp. A boy has taken three little young squirrels in their nest or drey, as it is called in these parts, White Selborne (1788) 333, ed. 1851. Wil. Common in Savernake Forest (J.R.W.); Wil.1
    2. Applied rarely to a large nest, as a hawk’s. Wil.1
    3. A prison.
    Hmp.1 Wise New Forest (1883).
    [1. While he, from tree to tree, from spray to spray, Gets to the woods, and hides him in his dray, Browne Br. Past. (1613) I. 5 (Nares).]

  11. David Marjanović says

    In German, too, there’s a special word for this: Kobel.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    I knew “drey”; I think it’s probably one of those words you either learn in primary school or not at all. Squirrel Nutkin ,,,

  13. The word drey (however spelled) does not appear in either Beatrix Potter squirrel story, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (her second book) or the much-less-known The Tale of of Timmy Tiptoes.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    This was a generic Squirrel Nutkin, not the proprietary Squirrel Nutkin©. Like a hoover. (Only for nuts.) Let a thousand Squirrel Nutkinses bloom!

  15. @David Eddyshaw: Is Nutkin a completely generic squirrel, or only a generic red squirrel? And in the latter case, is there a generic gray squirrel at all? (I assume Timmy is too obscure to qualify.)

  16. Dunno. Bullwinkle’s pal Rocky doesn’t fit. He’s a flying squirrel. And Bill Murray’s nemesis (“Who’s the gopher’s friend? The little rabbit and the friendly squirrel.”) never gets a name.

  17. If the squirrel is grey,
    Its nest is a drey.
    If the squirrel is gray,
    Its nest is a dray.
    If the squirrel is red,
    It can be either way.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Day saved.

  19. @David: Not “Dey saved”?

  20. From the terrace of the café where I am sitting and trying to avoid thinking about the Turkish election, I can see the remnant of a squirrel dray hanging from the branch of a tree, which reminded me of this post.

    The OED’s vague suggestion of a connection between dray ‘squirrel’s nest’ to dray ‘sled or cart used for dragging wood, etc.’ and thus Old English dræge ‘dragnet’ and English draw and drag, interested me because the vague semantics reminded me of the French term for a squirrel’s nest, la hotte, presumably the same word as la hotte ‘pannier of osier (such as that borne by Father Christmas on his back) for collecting firewood, harvesting fruit, etc’. I suppose the meaning ‘squirrel’s nest’ for hotte developed from ‘container woven of osier’.

    Skeat (1901) in Notes on English Etymology: Chiefly Reprinted from the Transactions of the Philological Society has the following, p. 75:

    Dray, a squirrel’s nest. This word occurs in Drayton’s Quest of Cynthia, st. 51; W. Browne’s Pastorals, bk. i. song 5; and in Cowper, in a piece called A Fable. The A[nglo-]S[axon] spelling would be dræg; cf. day for A.S. dæg. It seems to me that the sense of ‘nest’ would very well explain a passage in Béowulf, l. 756, where it is said that Grendel was scared by Béowulf, and wanted to get away to his own haunt; ‘wolde on heolster fléon, sécan déofla gedræg,’ he wanted to flee to his hidingplace, to seek the devils’ dray. The explanation of gedræg in Grein is not at all clear. There seems to have been two forms, gedræg and gedreag, which may have been from different roots.

    Alas, that does not seem very likely. I could find two relatively recent studies of gedræg:

    Maynard, Stephen. “‘SĒCAN DĒOFLA GEDRÆG’: A NOTE ON ‘BEOWULF’ 756.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 93, no. 1, 1992, pp. 87–91 (on JSTOR here)


    Bammesberger, Alfred “A NOTE ON OLD ENGLISH ‘GEDRÆG/GEDREAG.’” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 94, no. 3/4, 1993, pp. 243–48 (on JSTOR here)

    To summarize, Bammesberger suggests that gedræg is a variant of gedreag, also scantily attested but in contexts that suggest the meaning ‘shout, cry’ or ‘troop’ (p. 246):

    If <gedræg/gedreag> (gedræg/gedréag) does reflect Gmc. *-draug-a-, as is certainly thinkable from the phonological point of view, this derivation does not necessarily allow us to pin down the exact semantic range of the substantive. An abstract (or collective) formation belonging to the root *dreug- ‘carry out warfare’ (if that is the basic meaning of the root), perhaps meaning originally ‘action of warfare’, could readily be applied to those who carry out that action, hence the word could also mean ‘a noisy company’ (or the like). The etymological analysis can give us indications as to the general semantic range the word may have. Beyond that only the investigation of the concrete occurrences may allow us to go. But the precise semantic content of gedræg/gedreag must remain somewhat elusive.

    (For the material supporting this Germanic root dreug- ‘to do a duty (?)’, Gothic driugan ‘wage war, serve in the army (στρατεύεσθαι)’, etc., see here.)

    Could a squirrel’s dray could be considered a noisy company, an unruly, untidy camp? I have certainly heard squirrels fighting when one of them is trying to expel another from a nest.

    I wonder if any LH reader can find a more recent treatment of Old English gedræg.

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