My wife and I watched a PBS show about raccoons yesterday and were astonished—I had no idea how ubiquitous, resourceful, and rapidly evolving they are, and it seems clear that they’ll wind up taking over the world from us and probably running it better. At any rate, I was pleased that I remembered the Russian word for them, енот [enot, pronounced something like “ye know’t”], and after the show I decided to look up the etymology. Vasmer says “Возм., заимств. через нем. Genettkatze или голл. genetta из франц. genette, исп., порт. ginetta, источником которого является араб. jarnait ‘соболиная кошка’ (i.e., it may be borrowed via German Genettkatze or Dutch genetta from a Romance form deriving from Arabic jarnait). What amused me was the entry in Dahl, who doesn’t usually do much in the way of etymology (Russian below the cut):

small American animal of the bear familly, raccoon, poloskun-bear [medved’-poloskun; poloskun ‘raccoon,’ from poloskat’ ‘rinse,’ poloskat’ ‘splash around, paddle’], Ursus lotor. The first raccoon furs were brought to Saint Petersburg, to the Cabinet [presumably the Kunstkamera], and a Greek named Gennadi was in charge of them; the buyers called them genadievy [“Gennadi’s”], from which the name enot is supposedly derived. But the raccoon civet is called Viverra genetta, and although that’s a completely different creature, isn’t it more to the point to look for a connection here? [Sample sentence:] Raccoon furs are in the most general use among us. In southern Siberia there is a raccoon called locally manal and mangut, which by its description is very similar to the American.

I love that kind of discursive, semi-encyclopedic definition.

Original Russian:

небольшой американский зверь семьи медведей, ракун, медведь-полоскун, Ursus lotor. Первые меха енота привезены были в Петербург в Кабинет, и заведывал ими грек Геннади; покупщики прозвали их генадиевыми, из чего, будто, сделали наконец енот. Впрочем, вивера енотовая называется Viverra Genetta; и хотя это вовсе иное животное, однако не ближе ли к делу искать тут связи? Енотовые меха у нас в самом общем употреблении. В южн. сиб. есть зверь енот, местно манал и мангут, по описанио весьма схожий с американским.


  1. Despite their common names in some European languages (German Waschbär, Dutch wasbeer), procyanids are probably an offshoot of the canids, and not closely related to bears at all.

  2. I’ve known the word Waschbär for years, but not what kind of animal it is (I don’t know much about animals period) Only last year or so did I realize from a documentary on German TV that these were raccoons.
    They’re called Waschbären [wash bears] because they sometimes appear to “wash” food in water, for instance a stream. This is called dousing in English. The WiPe articles just linked convey the impression that this behavior has been observed with certainty only in captive animals.
    There is a general tendency to assess this “dousing” or “washing” as a Leerlaufhandlung, a termed coined by Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s. The English equivalent is vacuum activity or behavior.
    “Vacuum activity” is an odd way to characterize this kind of thing. I suppose the idea is that the behavior “seems to be taking place in a vacuum”, i.e. without stimuli. Leerlauf is “idling”, as when a motor is in idle – it’s running but not getting anywhere.

  3. @JC: the number of bears is in sad decline. When I was but a lad we referred to koala bears and panda bears, but now you are chided if you do so.

  4. I have mentioned before that I learned the word Leerlauf in a funny way. We were chatting with a distinguished mathematician shortly before he was to give a Distinguished Lecture. He told us that he needed some time to himself now, to clear his mind for the task ahead: “I have to put my brain in Leerlauf.” I understood it as Lehrlauf until somebody else who didn’t understand it at all asked what it meant.

  5. I now remember your telling that. But Lehrlauf is a really good pun. Did this mathematician make other significant contributions in hohology ?

  6. dearieme: Well, you can take some comfort in the fact that pandas have been added to the bear group, for the first time, in fact, despite the “bear” in their common name; earlier taxonomy insisted they couldn’t be bears because bears were in the order Carnivora, and pandas don’t eat meat. But chemical phylogenetics (DNA analysis) has shown that they are indeed in the bear group. So this shows that not all “carnivores” eat meat (if “carnivore” is taken to mean “member of the order “Carnivora”).

  7. Funny, just very recently the topic came up in a Rio Wang discussion after it was discovered that other Slavic languages don’t use anything like Russia’s “enot”. I was very surprised, too, to discover that the Russian word may be a case of mistaken identity!
    manal and mangut are of questionable idenity too; perhaps they are a Pallas’s cat (manul in Russian, manuul in Mongol)

  8. I’ve heard that dogs can become vegetarian

  9. There is also an actual cat called “genet”.
    The linked German wiki article says raccoons were once called Schupp. (It also shows a picture of a Penisknochen; but that would be shtupp.)
    The pun was unintentional on the part of the distinguished mathematician (Raoul Bott). He was a fun guy, but I don’t think he was a pun guy. It was also unintentional on my part.

  10. The Chinese also call raccoons 浣熊 = “wash-bears.” A borrowing from the German, I suppose.

  11. Of course, raccoons are also obviously not rats, but that didn’t stop the French from calling them ratons laveurs (little washer rats). And apparently the old Québécois term for them is chat sauvage (wild cat).
    There are several amusing videos of raccoons “washing” their food that I just wasted my time watching on Youtube.

  12. michael farris says

    In Polish jenot is raccoon dog, which despite their appearance aren’t cloosely related to procyanids.
    The word for procyanid is szop, a word whose etymology is unknown to me (raccon is szop pracz ‘wash procyanid’ which is distinguished from szop rakojad (crab eating raccoon)
    Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  13. “I’ve known the word Waschbär for years, but not what kind of animal it is (I don’t know much about animals period) Only last year or so did I realize from a documentary on German TV that these were raccoons.’
    Stu there’s a population of them in southern Niedersachsen or that area that somehow got loose from captivity. They are an invasive, very destructive species and unfortunately for you, your climate is perfect for them. So far people are so taken in by their cuteness that they are having a hard time controlling the growth of the population. That will end but not beforeit is too late.
    Depending on twhat they have been eating they are quite edible, so there’s hope. Supposedly raccoon was served for Christmas dinner at the White House one year when Teddy Roosevelt was president.
    There’s a reference in Dream of the Red Chamber to eating some kind of animal that Alice Yang translates as “raccoon’. (Wretched, pathetic translation. She clearly couldn’t afford a proof-reader.) And since those were northerners, it’s not like it was some kind of bizarre mystery meat like the random crap Cantonese will eat.
    The Powhatan word they think “raccoon” derives from refers to scrubbing behavior. I can think of a lot of other traits of theirs to name them after. They have absolutely no fear of humans in my area and act like spoiled rich kids who expect you to love and feed them. They routinely wipe out any fish I put in my pond and destroy all the water plants too. If I could think of a ait to leave bait out for them the cats wouldn’t eat, I would do a little arsenic and old lace on them.

  14. michael farris says

    “The linked German wiki article says raccoons were once called Schupp”
    Okay, I guess that’s where szop comes from.

  15. michael farris says

    While here, at least two Muskoghean languages the neologism for monkey is ‘racoon-person’.
    (Creek wotko-isti, Mikasuki sawyaati)

  16. @Ben, thank you for that heartwarming news. And to the prim prudes and pedants of 50 or 60 years ago, I say “ya, boo, sucks”.

  17. There is also an actual cat called “genet”.
    The animal called genet in English at present is not a feline, but a viverrid, akin to civets and binturongs.

  18. Damn! I hate being wrong. Clearly I have never paid enough attention to genets or civets. I think I just assumed they were cats because civets are sometimes called civet cats, and also because they end with the same letter as ocelot.

  19. marie-lucie says

    ratons laveurs
    No, that does not mean “little washer rats”. They are not “little” compared to rats, but bigger, and there are no other kinds of “washer rats”. The ending -on can be augmentative as well as diminutive. The meaning is “big rats [that are] washers”.

  20. Procyon lotor – raccoon – [американский] енот-полоскун (Rus) – araiguma (Jap) – wash-bear or American yenot. This is the one with the ‘gangster mask’,
    but the real folk-hero isタヌキ tanuki – Nyctereutes procyonoides – енотовидная собака.
    I am not sure why, but at some point the tanuki became more widespread, or perhaps more referenced in Russia than yenot the wash bear and the name stuck with them. To denote the raccoon (yenot-poloskun) you’d have to spell out poloskun, not just yenot.
    I think [qualifier]

  21. The WiPe articles just linked convey the impression that this behavior has been observed with certainty only in captive animals.
    The Powhatan word they think “raccoon” derives from refers to scrubbing behavior.
    Somebody’s wrong here, unless the speakers of Powhatan kept the critters captive.

  22. Bott was known as a raconteur.

  23. I am not sure why, but at some point the tanuki became more widespread, or perhaps more referenced in Russia than yenot the wash bear and the name stuck with them. To denote the raccoon (yenot-poloskun) you’d have to spell out poloskun, not just yenot.
    So if a Russian sees енот these days they’ll think of a Japanese raccoon dog? Do other Russian-speakers agree with this?

  24. @ Jim.
    In my neck of the woods, a havahart trap baited with an egg will get the ‘coons and save the cats.

  25. rootlesscosmo says

    I ate baked raccoon once, around 45 years ago–the host of a big party in Northern Indiana had gone hunting for them with friends. It was kinda greasy but not bad.

  26. Bott was known as a raconteur.
    How embarassing, I see upon double-checking his WiPe article that it was not hohology, but the hohomology of hohomorphic sheaves in which he racked up good results. Since he took foliations seriously, he may have overlooked my own work on singular foliations, or pig’s ears as they are called here.

  27. “The linked German wiki article says raccoons were once called Schupp” … Okay, I guess that’s where szop comes from.
    I cannot judge of etymological matters, but I can report that Duden says the north German dialect word Schupp is a form of Schubs [nudge, (gentle) shove]. It says nothing about racoons. Maybe Schupp or szop, or both, are loan words from a different language.

  28. there is an obvious typo in the Russian text: иаконец should be наконец.
    In some older serif fonts Н and И look similar and OCR scanning may have got muddled. Strange nobody picked it.

  29. there is an obvious typo in the Russian text: иаконец should be наконец.
    Fixed; thanks.

  30. I mean, it’s not your typo, it’s the same on several different Dahl sites I’ve checked.

  31. my own work

    Stu, are you saying that you bake them, or do you just make jokes about them? I think that over here we call them elephant ears. Someone should really take a leaf from the Germans and put an elephant ear in the English WiPe article on “Foliation: Mathematics”.

    I believe it was Bott who taught me the Pigeonhole Principle, too. But he didn’t tell me that in German it’s the Raccoonhole Principle (Schubfachprinzip).

  32. John Emerson says

    Coming in late, but opossums compete with raccoons in Portland, OR. Or used to; a virus seems to have wiped them out. Opossums seemed to be found in the more thickly settled areas, and raccoons in the areas with more brush.

  33. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, I was curious about pig’s ears – I thought they wmight be a kind of mushrooom, but what an awful name to call palmiers! (literally ‘palm-trees’).

  34. John Emerson says

    I have eaten raccoon, and I liked it. I`have also seen fat wild raccoons squatting at the edge of a pond with their front paws in the water, but didn’t notice whether they were actually washing food. Raccoons get very fat and seem almost porcine when they do.
    There’s a town in MN called Coon Rapids, after the animal. Doonesbury thought that was hilarious. People actually avoid the world, since it has a racist interpretation. Possums likewise.
    In Chinese poetry there are creatures translated “raccoon-dogs” and “fox-badgers”. (I forget the Chinese characters.)I once spent hours figuring out what they really were, but lost my notes. I believe that the former is the dhole, but I’m not sure.
    The fox-badger functioned like the coon c.a. 300 Ad. Northerners exiled in the south called the southerners fox-badgers. It was a strong insult; one southerner refused to speak to his northern wife for many years because she had called him that.

  35. an awful name to call palmiers!
    Wow, that’s a revelation. Sometimes we’d special-order them from a downtown hotel kitchen in Soviet Moscow, and my family called them “elephant ears”. Maybe a subtle Jewish way to de-porcinize a treat LOL? Or maybe, since they were from Switzerland and the family name was Prousse, they didn’t like the word “Prussien”?

  36. ´are you saying that you bake them, or do you just make jokes about them?

    I work on eating them, and also rack up good results. There’s a nicely flexible German expression lurking here: das Ergebnis läßt sich sehen [1. “the results are not bad at all”, 2.”you can (literally) see the results”]. Meaning 1. may be a little clearer when you think of the expression this way: “the results are presentable, can show themselves in public”.

  37. marie-lucie says

    See below for pictures of French palmiers or Spanish palmeras. They are more rounded in shape than the pig’s ears, but otherwise identical.
    — I could not copy the address exactly because of “questionable content”, so I separated some of the letters:
    http://en.t o p i c t u r e s.com/palmier

  38. “manal and mangut are of questionable idenity too; perhaps they are a Pallas’s cat (manul in Russian, manuul in Mongol”
    hi, sorry to drop by like this, just wanted to say that enot in Mongolian is elbenkh, элбэнх, though the same word is listed for wolverine too in the dictionary, maybe the North American animals are named in Mongolian, like, together in a bunch /a joke
    well, so it’s not manal, we have a given name Manal, but it’s from Tibetan, which the deity of healing, protector/inspiration of doctors (otoch manal)

  39. Nice to know that you are watching, read! I loved your contributions here.
    Мануул (Felis manul) aka Палласын муур. It also has black rings on the tail but otherwise it’s no relation to coons if course. The sound of муур is wonderful btw.

  40. Well, to me they look more like ears than trees. But not pig’s ears so much.
    By the way, we dined at a restaurant the other night and I had the Tuscan Boar Ragu. We asked if it was really made from Tuscan boars, or just made according to a Tuscan recipe. The waitress indicated that the answer was somewhere in between: it is made from boars of Tuscan ancestry.

  41. So I went searching for the Russian names for French palmiers, and gradually remembered how they were officially called in the menu: Берлинское печенье, Berlin pastries. But most recipes simply call them ушки, little ears. Sometimes pigs’ little ears, sometimes (ahem) French little ears, a few times elephant ears (yes!), and once even … spectacles.

  42. thank you, Moskva, for remembering me! i wouldn’t want, of course, to be considered an intruder here (or elsewhere, too), so i’m on facebook mostly these days, on my own “turf”, so to speak, so i’m “balerd” there, if you (or anyone else here) would wish to friend me there..
    muur means just cat

  43. Nice that read popped by. I, too, did a little searching for Mongolian names for the raccoon, as well as Chinese and Vietnamese. It was a massive quagmire (including the fox-badger example). It’s hard to figure out what refers to what.
    One English-Mongolian dictionary gives зээх, but that’s definitely wrong since it refers to the wolverine. The name элбэнх or илбэнх seems to be correct — except that элбэнх is also used for the raccoon dog which does occur in Mongolia (the raccoon doesn’t). I have books on mammals of Mongolia which call the raccoon dog нохой элбэнх (or загал элбэнх).
    I was considering doing an entry on this complex of animals (raccoon dog, raccoon, and badger) at my blog, but the complexity and confusion were too overwhelming to unravel with a few deft strokes.

  44. sorry for the double posting, something went wrong
    i just did search for myself on facebook and couldn’t find, so i’m Erdene UB on JE’s or M-l’s contacts, if you are friends with them
    now cheers for real!

  45. @Marie-Lucie: Thanks, I was unaware of the augmentative meaning of -on. Ânon, ourson, etc. all seem to be diminutives, but I don’t dispute that a raccoon is indeed larger than a rat (can raton by itself mean a big rat?). Perhaps it’s better to call it a hypocoristic suffix, which wouldn’t require a literal smaller size.
    The Trésor de la langue française says that raton also used to mean “enfant dressé à voler”. Perhaps the name for the American rat was influenced by a similar figurative use.

  46. Incidentally, I have a Chinese-Mongolian dictionary which gives for the raccoon another name: ухиалч малуур өтөг * meaning ‘washing manul bear’ (where малуур is another word for мануул). This is obviously an Inner Mongolian name, and I have no idea how current it is — it could have been made up by the dictionary compilers — but I found it interesting in the light of comments on here about Pallas’s cats.
    * I think ухиалч is correct, unless it is ухиалж. Traditional Mongolian script is so damned hard!

  47. I recently looked up the Georgian for the raccoon (Procyon lotor) and the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). The terms are ენოტი enot’i & ენოტისმსგავსი ძაღლი enot’ismsgavsi dzaghli respectively, obviously a loan and calque of Russian енот & енотовидная собака.
    Since I had first heard of the raccoon dog in a Russian, rather than a Japanese or Chinese, context*, I was surprised that the Russian name for an animal found in Russia should, like the English, be based on that of the New World raccoon. Of course, when one looks at the history this is not so surprising. The raccoon dog is native to certain areas of the Russian Far East, but probably few Russian speakers were familiar with it before the 20th century (when it was introduced to European Russia as a fur animal). By that date, of course, it would be quite possible for an American species to be well known. Still, if as Sashura says the primary sense of енот has shifted from P. lotor to N. procyonoides, then reality has been brought into line with my naïve expection.
    * Reading the book accompanying the TV wildlife documentary series Durrell in Russia, in the 80s. I had actually heard of the タヌキ in connection with Japanese mythology, but Dragons, Unicorns and other Magical Beasts misidentified it as “an ordinary black and white badger”, and it was only some years later that I realized they were the same species.

  48. @ John Emerson
    It would be very useful to know the characters for the “raccoon-dogs” and “fox-badgers” that you speak of! Animal names in Chinese are very varied and confusing. Raccoon dog is normally 貉子, fox is 狐狸, and badger is 獾, but the pool of language is quite muddy and full of unidentifiable scats.
    It’s possible the fox-badger you mention is 狐狸, which is apparently a combination of the words for fox (狐) and, arguably, raccoon-dog (狸). But without the characters, it’s all just a guess.

  49. @ Tim May
    タヌキ isn’t actually ‘misidentified’. The Japanese have at least three mischievous shape-changers in their folklore: the fox, the tanuki (狸), and the mujina (狢). According to Wikipedia, the mujina refers mainly to the badger, but depending on the locality can also refer to the raccoon dog or masked palm civet (of all things). Indeed, the Wikipedia article refers to an area of Ibaragi pref. where the badger is known as tanuki and the raccoon dog is known as mujina.

  50. I forgot to mention that 狐狸 is the normal everyday word for ‘fox’. Like English, it refers to someone who is cunning.

  51. I still don’t see how a palmier looks like a palm tree. I think it looks more like the mask of a palm civet.
    By the way, WiPe says of the masked palm civet “In Japan, it is unclear whether they are a native species or were recently introduced by humans.”

  52. marie-lucie says

    According to my Petit Robert:
    palmier (2) (XXe, pour feuille de palmier) Gâteau plat, en forme de palmette …
    — A flat cake in the shape of a palmette …
    palmette (1694): ornement en forme de feuille de palmier.
    — An [architectural] ornament in the shape of a palm leaf.
    But not just any palm leaf. See pictures of the ornament in Wikipedia under “palmette”. The current shape of the cake is probably a simplification of an attempt to reproduce a palmette, or parts of it.

  53. What the pastry looks like is the lower parts of the lower pictures in the box next to the “Description” paragraph here.
    Was the pastry designed to look like a palmette, or was it made to look good and taste good and then called a palmette because of a resemblance?
    I wrote “pastry” where m-l wrote “cake” and Petit Robert wrote “gáteau”. In googling “palmette” I also found some tapestries. It’s too bad that “tapestrie” is not an anagram of “patisserie”.
    I feel that if we are speaking of elephant’s ears and pig’s ears someone should mention Canadian beaver tails.

  54. marie-lucie says

    øh, I have another pun for you
    You are right, in this context “pastry” is a much better translation for “gâteau”, which does not totally overlap with “cake”.
    Whether the “palmette” or the “palmier” came first seems to be a chicken-and-egg question! According to the Petit Robert, the word “palmier” for this pastry is a 20th century innovation, instead of “feuille de palmier” which was probably too long as a name. Pastry chefs are always trying to create new shapes as well as new recipes.
    Besides “beaver tails”, Canada also has “bear paws”.

  55. Palmette is common in English for the decorative motif.

  56. Yes, I saw that on Wikipedia, where I looked for a picture. But the word is French: “little palm”.

  57. marie-lucie says

    In the florist section of my local supermarket, I found what I think is the original of a palmette: I first noticed what seemed to me to be the back (or underside) of it, where you can see the central “core” (?) that the separate pointed “leaves” are attached to, which is not visible from the front (or top) where the leaves all meet in one point, but which is prominent in the architectural motif.

  58. Can anyone bring more clarity to the word Schupp / szop? I noticed that Sorbian and Koshubian also use Shub for racoon. And the word seems to predate XIX c. (when mass exports of coonskins began) because there is Polish / Jewish surname Szopnik attested since early XIX c. Perhaps just like in Russia, szop / Schupp was some other creature before it came to designate racoon?

  59. Raccoons didn’t arrive in Europe until 1920, and weren’t released into the wild until 1934. There’s a story about Hermann Göring being behind their release into the wild, but that might be a myth.

  60. From Samuel I. Zeveloff, Raccoons: A Natural History (UBC Press, 2002, p. 3):

    For example, at about the time when the first raccoon furs arrived in Germany, which could have been as early as the sixteenth century, they were given the name schupp. This word had been previously used to describe various related items: a fish vendor, a fisherman, fish scales, and even the person who scraped off the scales. Perhaps the German furriers gave the raccoon this name in reference to its fishing skills, though they also used it for the marten, a member of the weasel family, Mustelidae. Variations of this term, such as its Dutch version, schob, spread throughout Europe.

  61. And Mackensen’s etymological dictionary says that Schuppe is related to schaben ‘to scrape, grate’ (cf. English shave).

  62. Ah, so Wikipedia link to Grimm’s Schuppenpelz <= Russian “shuba” furcoat is ways off?

  63. Apparently so.

  64. David Marjanović says

    the marten, a member of the weasel family, Mustelidae

    Two members in west-central Europe alone, the European pine marten (Martes martes) and the beech marten (Martes foina).

  65. Waschbär


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