My wife asked me if jerboa and gerbil were related; I looked them up, and sure enough, they’re both from Arabic يربوع (yarbūʿ), the latter via French gerbille (the first OED cite is as late as 1849: Sketches Nat. Hist.: Mammalia IV. 47 The Indian gerbille is common in Hindustan, and seems to be gregarious). What particularly struck me was the Arabic etymology:

From Proto-Semitic *ʿakbar- (“mouse”) mingled with عُرْقُوب‎ (ʿurqūb, “hamstring, Achilles tendon”) from *ʿarqūb- (“hamstring, Achilles tendon”) in specialization to the fauna of the Arabian desert where the jerboa is marked by its jumping muscles. Compare Classical Syriac ܥܽܘܩܒܪܳܐ‎ (ʿuqbarā, “mouse”), Hebrew עַכְבָּר‎ (ʿaḵbār, “mouse”).

Anybody know how reliable all that is? [Not very! See Xerîb’s comment below.]

Another interesting etymology I recently ran across in Vasmer:

обдо “сокровищница”, только русск.-цслав. обьдо, ст.-слав. обьдо θησαυρός (Супр.). От *обь- (см. о II) и к. *dhē- “ставить” (см. де́ять, деть); ср. Мейе, Ét. 234. Образование аналогично суд, просто́й.

In other words, the archaic Russian word обдо ‘treasury’ is a prefixed form of the PIE root dʰeh₁- ‘to do, put, place,’ the familiar descendant of which in Russian is деть ‘to put, place.’ I wouldn’t have guessed.


  1. ‘Put, place’ is a striking translation because it gets across all of the denotation and none of the connotation of деть in modern Russian. It really just means ‘put’ but only for objects you’re annoyed with, either because you don’t know where to put them or because you don’t know where you put them.

  2. Heh. Yes, but there’s only so much you can put in an etymological entry!

  3. I don’t know what the etymology is but I’m not a fan of “mingled with”, and even with that hand-waving the forms don’t match well.

    The ʾ (glottal stop) should be ʿ (pharyngeal obstruent) in the Syriac and Hebrew transcriptions.

    The French -ille, says the TLFI, is a diminutive, added by Desmarest (1804) to refer to a particular species of gerboise. The latter is “une adaptation fantaisiste du mot ar. (R. Arveiller, Z. rom. Philol. t. 92, p. 108) plutôt qu’un dér. suff. de la forme 1 [Gerbo].”

  4. I don’t know what the etymology is but I’m not a fan of “mingled with”, and even with that hand-waving the forms don’t match well.

    Yes, that was my reaction too. I’ll fix the obstruent thing.

  5. I don’t believe that jerboa etymology for a second. YaCCuuC is a moderately productive minor pattern for animal and plant names.

  6. Thanks, I was hoping you’d show up!

  7. Professionaldoe says

    from lat. manus – “hand” and scribo – “I write”) ]

  8. Some proposed cognates of Arabic yarbūˁ here:

    The SED online leaves out Syriac ܝܲܪܒܘܼܥܵܐ yarbūˁā, which some have suspected of being an Arabism in Syriac.

  9. Anybody know how reliable all that is?

    The possibility of a complicated relationship between Semitic words for “mouse” (Proto-Semitic *ˁakbar-) and West Semitic words for “Achilles tendon, hamstring” (cognates here under *ˁarḳVb-) and “tendon, vein, nerve” (cognates here under *ˁirḳ) is explored in Richard C. Steiner (1982) “Review of Ḥarsūsi Lexicon and English-Ḥarsūsi Word-List by T. M. Johnstone”, Afroasiatic Linguistics 8/4. Steiner’s discussion of the problem begins on p. 194 of volume 8 (=p. 15 of part 4) here. It’s a complicated scenario, so I won’t attempt to summarize his discussion.

    In passing, Steiner mentions Akkadian arrabu, probably “jerboa” (formerly often translated “dormouse”), but it is not integrated into his discussion. The rest of the forms he discusses are very far from Akkadian arrabu, Arabic yarbūˁ, etc. The Wiktionary etymology is ultimately drawn from discussions like Steiner’s, I think, but it’s a non sequitur—the etymology doesn’t relate the Arabic word to the Semitic protoform in a coherent way. The data in Steiner’s problem are so varied and complicated that someone (like the author of the Wiktionary etymology) may have thought they could sneak in Arabic yarbūˁ and its cognates too, but I don’t see how that it is possible in any controlled way. But maybe someone has tried. I would be interested in finding a reference.

    Militarev and Kogan also discuss the same problem in relation to Mehri ˀārḳayb da-fām and Ḥarsusi ˀarḳáyb ḏə-fām “Achilles tendon”. This is their take on *ˁarqūb- “Achilles tendon” (Semitic Etymology Dictionary I:23):

    A complicated case of an apparently independent Sem. root, likely influenced by both * ˁirḳ– ‘tendon, etc.’ (No. 20) and * ˁaḳ-ib-, * ˁiḳb- ‘heel’ (No. 14).
    Interestingly, Mhr. ˀārḳayb, Hrs. ˀarḳáyb taken separately (without ḏə-fām), and Jib. [Jibbali] ˁarkeb… mean ‘mouse, rat’, so the combination *ˁarkīb ḏə-fām in Mhr. and Hrs. may be interpreted as ‘mouse/rat of foot’. However, though there are conspicuous examples of the semantic shift ‘mouse’ > ‘muscle’ (see [Maisel 196], [Walde— Hoffmann 2 132: mus]), what we have here are rather two homonyms, one inherited from a common Sem. anatomic term, the other, *ˁarkīb- ‘mouse, rat’, compable to metathetic Sem. * ˁakbar- ‘mouse’, Syr. ˁuḳbərā .

  10. I wasn’t able to edit the previous comment because it was eaten by spam. Please excuse the formatting errors. Steiner’s paper can be found here or here.

  11. Very interesting, thanks! (I think I’ve fixed the formatting errors.) A sample from Steiner:

    This figure of speech reminds one inevitably of Old French soriz which means both ‘mouse’ and ‘calf of the leg’ and of the many other Indo-European words which mean both ‘mouse’ and ‘muscle’: Greek μῦς, Latin musculus, Old Norse, Old High German, and Old English mūs, Dutch muis. Indeed the Syriac cognate of H ‘arḳáyb, M ‘ārḳáyb, S ‘arḳéb ‘mouse’ is ‘uḳbra, whose feminine form means both ‘female mouse’ and ‘muscle’, although this may be a loan­-translation from Greek.

    Did the connection between ‘mouse’ and ‘Achilles’ tendon’ exist already in Proto-Semitic or is this an MSA innovation? To answer this question, we must examine the cognates of ‘arḳáyb in the other Semitic languages […]

    The OED (s.v. mouse, updated March 2003) says:

    The word for mouse also has the sense ‘muscle’ (especially of the upper arm) in many Indo-European languages, e.g. Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Icelandic, ancient Greek and Hellenistic Greek, post-classical Latin, and Armenian, apparently because of the resemblance of a flexing muscle to the movements made by a mouse (for rare use in English in this sense see sense 14). Compare also Old Church Slavonic myšĭca arm muscle, Old French soris mouse, muscle of arm or leg, and muscle n. Compare also joint mouse n. at joint n.1 Compounds 2. Classical Latin mūs and ancient Greek μῦς ‘mouse’ are also used to denote the mussel.

    (Note the misspelling “mussel” at the end. I’m actually shocked.) [No, they mean “mussel”; see January First-of-May’s comment below.]

  12. January First-of-May says

    especially of the upper arm

    …whence Russian подмышка “armpit”, literally “under-mouse”.

    The generic Russian word for “muscle” (мышца) is probably historically related to the word for “mouse” [EDIT: it seems to match the OCS term listed above], but (unlike the “armpit” word) is not transparent as such synchronically [probably because it’s an OCS loan].

    Note the misspelling “mussel” at the end.

    I don’t think that’s a misspelling; I suspect they are, in fact, referring to actual mussels. It is, however, a non-sequitur.

  13. I’ll be damned, you’re right: II. a shell-fish, mussel. What a stupid thing to tack on irrelevantly; did they just want to confuse people?

  14. And mussel is from Latin mūsculus, so just a respelling (via French) of the same word.

  15. ə de vivre says

    I believe that the only possible etymology is that the Syriac word for mouse represents the original form, ‘ʿuqbarā’ denoting an animal from Uqbar, which we all know is close to Erzerum in the Armenian Highlands. This word is an obvious intrusion of one of the Tlönish languages into our world!

  16. *ˁarkīb- ‘mouse, rat’, comparable to metathetic Sem. * ˁakbar- ‘mouse’, Syr. ˁuḳbərā

    I don’t understand the vowel mismatches ī:a and a:u.

    To add more to the stew, there’s Hebrew berek ‘knee’, with cognates (?) throughout Semitic, with Arabic rukbā through metathesis, and Aramaic ’arkubā ditto plus prothetic a (did I get the long final vowels right?) Does it have anything to do with ‘arqūb?

    It’s all very suggestive, and I’d like to see a rigorous sifting out of the etymologies, the folk etymologies, and the false etymologies.

  17. You and me both.

  18. I don’t think the mention of mussel in that OED entry is a non sequitur. It just assumes that the reader knows that the name of the mollusk is derived from the name of the animal. My mother, who majored in French and knew a fair bit of Latin, knew that mussel derived from Latin musculus, but she thought it was from the “muscle” meaning, owing to the strength of the adductor muscle that opens and closes the shell. (I find it amusing that some people, when they eat mussels or other bivalves straight out the shell don’t even bother with the adductor, leaving the little cylindrical muscle attached to the shell. Yet, when we eat scallops, the adductor is the only part of the animal we normally eat—scallops having such huge muscles since they actually flap their shells open and closed to swim through the water.)

  19. I can only suppose that the real Ukbara was named after a mouse…

  20. As featured in this episode of Lewis (though without the mouse).

  21. David Eddyshaw says
  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Casting around in vain for placenames based on mice, I eventually thought of the unfeasibly pretty village of Mousehole in Cornwall:

    However, it doesn’t seem to be at all clear what the actual origin of the name really is. All the suggestions seem about equally improbable.

  23. My wife has actually been there, which makes me jealous.

  24. There is a Russian town Myshkin, and one story about the origin of its name is that a prince (perhaps Fyodor Mikhailovich Mstislavsky) lay down to rest on the banks of the Volga and woke up to find a mouse (мышка [myshka]) crawling over his face: “At first he got angry, but then he saw that the mouse had saved him from a snake that was crawling towards him.”

  25. Now, of course, you’ll ask “What happened to the mouse?”

  26. Stu Clayton says

    The village’s harbourside was once the location of the Lobster Pot guest house, in which Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara spent their honeymoon after marrying at Penzance register office.[11]

  27. Stu Clayton says

    Now, of course, you’ll ask “What happened to the mouse?”

    Actually I wondered what happened to the snake. Under the assumption that there are no giant anacondas on the banks of the Volga, there’s no need to be “saved” from a snake minding its own business.

    This may have been one of those mouse-snake scams. The mouse got a ruble as a token of princely appreciation. Once the prince had pissed off, mouse and snake went down the pub to celebrate.

  28. I think that must be it.

  29. Owlmirror says

    The only musculus I can contribute is Balaenoptera musculus, the blue whale.


    The genus name, Balaenoptera, means winged whale while the species name, musculus, could mean “muscle” or a diminutive form of “mouse”, possibly a pun by Carl Linnaeus when he named the species in Systema Naturae.

  30. More here. It could be something to do with Pliny calling something a musculus marinus, a baleen whale lookalike or its seeing-eye fish.

    This 1818 article says of Pliny’s animal, “Der Musculus marinus PL. ist ebenfalls keine Maus, sondern der gemeine Wallfisch, Balaena Mysticetus” (“The Musculus marinus (Pliny) is likewise [like the Seemäuse] not a mouse, but the common whale, Balaena Mysticetus [bowhead whale].”) Maybe some people, including Linnaeus, concluded that Musculus marinus was a baleen whale of some kind.

  31. David Marjanović says

    …and yes, it really says Wallfisch with an unetymological ll that is entirely misleading for the pronunciation I know. I guess the book is from so far north that they never lengthened the vowel…?

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