The Russian word белок [belók] means a number of things, including ‘egg white’ and ‘white of the eye’ (it’s based on the adjective белый [bélyi] ‘white’), but the sense that concerns us here is ‘albumen; protein.’ The Russian Academy of Sciences has an institute devoted to studying protein, called, reasonably enough, Институт белка [institút belká], with белок in the genitive case: ‘Institute of protein.’ Now, it so happens that there is another word белка in Russian, though this one has the stress on the first syllable, and it is the nominative of the word for ‘squirrel.’ The Institute has unwisely allowed the English version of their web page to be done by automatic translation, and you can see the result here. (Via Anatoly.)
Update. It’s been fixed now, but you can see a screenshot here.


  1. Nuts!

  2. We have wondered for years, however, if squirrels are somehow related to the idea of “white” (certainly not related to the concept”protein”).
    The squirrels in New England are dun-brown-grey colored (with an all-black variant that occurs rarely), with white bellies. It is the white bellies that are easily seen if you were, say, hunting squirrels by shooting them. European squirrels are colored differently — still with white bellies, I think, But I don’t think the old Russian fur trade, which relied heavily on squirrel fur, got the critters by shooting them — I think trapping is more likely, in which case the white belly fur is irrelevant.
    If you want to take up the topic of names and uses of fur-bearing animals in medieval Russia (and further afield) I would eagerly follow, as this is a long-held interest of mine — but I won’t drag you there, as it might be deemed too eccentric.
    cheers –

  3. Nothing is too eccentric for Languagehat! Say what you feel like saying about fur-bearing animals in medieval Russia, and we’ll see who hops on for a ride.

  4. After all, it’s not as though there’s much to say about this particular goof except “Oops!” So you might as well take the discussion in a more productive direction.

  5. Aren’t squirrels usually referred to in contemporary Russian through the diminutive “bjeločka”, or am I just hanging out with infantile people?

  6. This reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of a similar blunder in Walter Arndt’s translation of _Eugene Onegin_, mercilessly mocked by Nabokov in his cantankerous review: where Pushkin has
    «так зайчик в озими трепещет, увидя вдруг издалека в кусты припавшего стрелка»
    Arndt rendered
    «…as from afar with sudden rush an arrow falls into the brush»
    having confused the word strelka – stressed on the final syllable, accusative of strelok “shooter” – with strelka – stressed on the first syllable, nominative “arrow”. The translator should have noticed that “arrow” is ungrammatical there, agreeing neither in case nor in gender with the rest of the sentence.

  7. Russian is once again the odd one among Slavic languages; the others seem to have squirrel words that are diminutives of something like “vever”:
    Belarusian: Вивірка
    Macedonian: Верверици
    Polish: Wiewiórka
    Yiddish and Romanian, unsurprisingly, follow suit.
    As for whiteness, there may be something to that; the Breton word for squirrel is “gwiñver,” which to my barely-acquainted-with-Celtic eyes suggests whiteness. Although now that I look it up, the Welsh word is “gwiwer,” which resembles the Slavic root. Hmm.
    The etymology of the English word “squirrel” makes me giggle.

  8. Huh. They’re both from the PIE “wēwer,” which also gave rise to Ger. Eichhorn. Silly me; I didn’t know that. Don’t know enough to say whether there are any cognates in Indic/Iranian.

  9. Ben, so what -is- the English etymology, please?

  10. From the Online Etymological Dictionary:
    early 14c., from Anglo-Fr. esquirel, O.Fr. escurel (Fr. écureuil), from V.L. *scuriolus, dim. of *scurius “squirrel,” variant of L. sciurus, from Gk. skiouros “a squirrel,” lit. “shadow-tailed,” from skia “shadow” + oura “tail.”
    What it doesn’t say is that the Greek “oura” (tail) is from the same IE root as “arse/ass.”
    Not as funny as I made it out to be, in retrospect.
    It just occurred to me that the “ek” prefix in the Germanic squirrel words might mean “tail.” I could look it up before posting this, but I won’t.

  11. It just occurred to me that the “ek” prefix in the Germanic squirrel words might mean “tail.”
    I hope we’re not going off on another “little oakhorn” chase. There was a prolonged set-to on the subject of squirrels and Eichhörnchen at this very site, starting on November 11, 2009.

  12. Welsh gwiwer is a feminine noun so it mutates to “y wiwer” (the squirrel) making it even closer to the PIE root ‘wewer’. Another Welsh word for squirrel is dringhedydd coch – “red climber”.

  13. The word белка for squirrel could be a fur trade term. It was the greyish winter coat that was demanded for — not mainly for its colour, but for being a better fur.

  14. So what’s the verdict on Cinderella (Askepot) and her glass slippers of squirrel fur?

  15. Seems like they fixed the page. Says “Institute of Protein Research” now.

  16. the greyish winter coat
    Norwegian blue? Winter squirrels are deepest red in our parts and pelts mainly go on hats and collars.
    The squirrel institute here was obviously a mistake, but rather than being embarassed I suspect they are laughing their pants off now in Moscow. To those familiar with the particular strand of Russian/Soviet academic humour it would have reminded them about the NiiChavo (НИИЧаВо) – Nii being the common abbreviation for Scientific and Research institute and ChaVo is for sorcery (charodeystvo) and magic (volshebstva). Read phonetically it sounds like ‘nichevo’ the Russian word for ‘nothing’. It’s from the 1964 Strugatsky cult novel ‘Monday Begins on Saturday’, a wildly funny satire on Russian academic life. Wiki article about it is here. And for those who enjoyed the recent Hatul Madan post – the Learned Cat is in the book too.

  17. Seems like they fixed the page. Says “Institute of Protein Research” now.
    Rats, I was afraid that would happen!

  18. Squirrel fur is called gråverk “greywork” in Norwegian and related languages. I learn from the WP article that there are regional variations in the colour of the winter fur, but it’s generally more grey in the north.

  19. By the way, Old Russian has běla věverica ‘white squirrel’, which explains the origin of белка.
    My personal favourite cognate is (Klaus) Wowereit, the surname of the mayor of Berlin, whose name is of (Prussian) Lithuanian origin (cf. Lith. voverė ‘squirrel’).

  20. @Grumbly Stu: Yeah, I was wondering of I was risking rekerfufflage by bringing up acornhorns again. Looks like we dodged a bullet there. Or a flying squirrel. As I remember, and as I now see (thanks for providing the link; I couldn’t find the relevant post), that discussion was inconclusive and concerned the nature of folk etymology and the apparently unresolved question of whether or not that pesky prefix really means oak or only really really seems to. Though I just realized that Yiddish has misled me again; in Yiddish the word for tail is “ek,” cognate with “das Eck” and/or “die Ecke” (I think), but this is just because something was needed to take the place of “shvants” when it became… problematic.
    @Fred: “Wowereit” is a beautiful example.

  21. So are Russian squirrels ever red? There was a German post-WWII joke that had a Russian soldier seeing a red German squirrel and saying “poor Germany, such small foxes” (Armes Deutschland, Kleine Fuechse).

  22. Does anyone else see ‘Guinevere’ in ‘gwinver’, the Breton word for squirrel? Could ‘whiteness’ be the semantic connection?
    My inability to put a tilde over the en is actually helpful.

  23. 1st of all, thank you for not knowing russian. Squirrels were fixed, but there are a lot of silly mistakes still. Such as “of wounds” instead of abbreviation R.A.of S.
    About whether squirrels are white, i heard two versions.
    1) They were named in old times by winter hunters. Hunting squirrels was easier in winter, when they change fur into gray-white, like polar foxes do. Consider pictures at http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%91%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BA%D0%B0
    2) in Old Slavic pra-language adjectives ~red and ~white were the same and related more to the beauty than to the colour. Later this meaning almost disappeared and colour meaning diverged. But still in Russian many folklore wordings, with clearly obsolete sounding, either have “beauty” meaning or have twin red/white.
    Example is “Красна девица” ~ “[old]Red [old]maiden” which means pretty one, not red. It was once used by Garbage’s Shirley, when he painted hair to ginger 😉
    Example is proverb “На миру и смерть красна” ~ “Among [old]community even dying is [old]nice” – not “…is red”
    Example is “Белый свет”|”Красный свет” – those are not modern meaning white light and red light, but obsolete meaning of our “pretty world”
    Example – “Krasno Solnyshko, that is, the Fair Sun” @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_I_of_Kiev

  24. 1st of all, thank you for not knowing russian.

  25. Isn’t Gwenhwyfar/guinevere “white owl”, or is that from some fictional account?

  26. the diminutive “bjeločka”
    it could be either.
    So are Russian squirrels ever red?
    thanks for the joke! I was surprised to read in the wikipedia article about grey winter coat. I used to hunt squirrels in North-West Russia and they were always deep red/ginger, in winter too.
    Russian is the odd one among Slavic languages
    not quite, there are regional/archaic variants: veksha, veveritsa.
    The really interesting one is ‘mys’ (мысь/мысль) which appears in the idiom ‘to spill one’s thoughts over the tree'(растекаться мысию/мыслью по древу) meaning to be all over the place, not to be able to get to the point. The phrase is from the 12th century epic the Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Some interpret mys as meaning squirrel – words jump all over the tree like squirrel does.
    My question is: considering the time – Norman/Viking – could there be a link to Scandinavian folklore? The squirrel there is a gossip-monger, running up and down the mythical tree between the eagle at the top and the dragon at the bottom.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Serbian: veverica/веверица. Stress on the first syllable.
    The Welsh word is intriguing in this context. Urheimat or Wanderwort?

  28. from the PIE “wēwer,”
    i wonder what is the meaning of that word, is it tail?
    our word for squirrel is kherem which is from kherekh/merekh – meaning gryzt’ – to chew, squibble, gnaw
    i read about etymologies of words here in the threads and ours are always so different from all others mentioned, but must be those are common among other altaic languages, though there is no such a group i recall i read too

  29. My daughter Blanca’s Yiddish name is Beyle, but generally she’s called Beylke (the diminuitive). Her Yiddish- and Russian-speaking nanny (from Molodva) used to call her Byelotshka.
    The root “beyle” survives in Yiddish, though barely, in the name of white meat: beylik.

  30. Belochka, Belka is also a diminutive of the name Bella or Bela, which is seen as a Latin import.
    But belochka (little squirrel) and zaichik (little hare) are widely used as affectionate nicknames for children.

  31. David Marjanović says

    though there is no such a group i recall i read too

    There is, but its branches are very distant from each other. Proto-Altaic was probably spoken before Proto-Indo-European, and it’s more difficult to reconstruct because there aren’t as many and as old documented ancient languages in Altaic as in IE.

  32. Gwenhwyfar – “white owl”?
    I don’t think it’s anything to do with owls but to be honest I don’t really know what the second element means but most websites say the name derives from “white” and “smooth” but as I said, I don’t know?
    Most people think that the Welsh “gwenci” (weasel) means “white dog” but really it’s “greedy dog” from “gwanc” (greed, voracious) as in the Welsh saying:
    As hungry as the weasel
    Mor wancus â’r wenci.
    So if it was owl connected, I wouldn’t be surprised?

  33. However, word “Belka” really can mean “Whitey” some times.
    I’m pretty sure that is the meaning of the space dog – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belka_(dog)

  34. hi everebody!
    i’m from Russia and Russian is my native language. It was really interesting and funny to read your discussion:) Thank you!
    I haven’t jet understood themes of this web-site, but i think it would be interesting to you to know that “Belochka” and “Belka” have one more meaning in modern informal language. It means “alcoholic mania” as diminutive from “белая горячка” [belaya goriachka] 🙂

  35. “Belka” and “belochka” in Russian slang stands for delirium tremens, as its full name in Russian is “belaya goryachka” – so to say “white fever”.

  36. Oh,sarj. Hey. I first posted and only then saw your comment. 🙂 Same thoughts

  37. Heh. Synchronicity strikes again! Thanks, both of you.

  38. the meaning of the space dog
    thanks for mentioning this! My two dogs are called Nala and Strelka. They were supposed to be Belka and Strelka, but my children voted me down on Belka. I didn’t know Khrushev gave their off-spring to Kennedy who invented a new word for them – pupniks.
    One of Anatoly’s commenters also sent a hilarious pic with ingredients on a chocolate wrapper. A missing comma turned ‘eggs, proteins’ (яйца, белки) into squirrel’s balls.

  39. Time to quote the OED at miniver:
    “The French menu vair or petit-gris is the red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, in its winter coat, which is greyish with white underparts. In the 13th and 14th centuries the fur of this animal was commonly used for the lining and decoration of ceremonial costumes, with the dark and white fur forming an alternating pattern. In England it became fashionable to cut the grey and white fur apart and treat them separately (see pured gris, pured miniver at PURED adj. 1, PURRAY n.), so that miniver came to be used of any pure white fur. In 1688 R. Holme explains miniver as ‘plain white fur’, and this is probably the meaning of the word as used with reference to the costume of judges and the lower nobility in the 16-17th centuries. In this sense the term was revived in the official regulations for the coronation of Edward VII, and it has since had some currency in descriptions of the ceremonial costume of peers.”
    Of “vair” it says:
    1 A fur obtained from a variety of squirrel with grey back and white belly, much used in the 13th and 14th centuries as a trimming or lining for garments. Now only arch.
    .3. Her. One of the heraldic furs, represented by bell- or cup-shaped spaces of two (or more) tinctures, usu. azure and argent, disposed alternately (in imitation of small skins arranged in a similar manner and sewn together).
    Now, you might think, if you knew nothing about etymology, like me, that “vair” comes from PIE “wēwer,” but the OED says it’s from OF. vair, veir, “acc. sing. masc. of “varius”, parti-coloured. Cf. med.L. varius.”

  40. Now I’m thinking that the verk of gråverk might be a folk etymology for vair.

  41. I thought about that a couple of days ago, but I was too annoyed with the way they stretched out what should have been a thirty-second video. Amusing idea, though.

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