The idea of today’s post was inspired by a question from a correspondent. She is the author of a book on foxes and wanted more information on the etymology of fox. I answered her but thought that our readers might also profit by a short exploration of this theme. Some time later I may even risk an essay on the fully opaque dog. But before coming to the point, I will follow my hero’s habits and spend some time beating about the bush and covering my tracks.
The origin of animal names is often hard to discover because many of them are so-called taboo words. People were afraid to call wild and destructive animals by their “real” names and substituted new ones for those in existence. Sometimes we can follow the process of substitution. The Greek word arktós, from which English has Arctic, is related to Latin ursus “bear,” familiar to English speakers from Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and the female name Ursula “little she-bear.” The protoform must have begun with (a)rkt– or something similar. Did the sound-imitative root rkt– or rkth– mean “roar” (like the Russian noun rokot)? In any case, the Indo-European brown bear, although it probably had no idea that its female partner was associated with two constellations, must have realized that people had learned its name. Therefore, it became dangerous to pronounce something like arkti–urkti: the bear might take the word for an invitation and come, and this is something no one wanted. Tales of bears abducting maidens, of bears seeking “compensation” for a wound, of bears’ sons, and so forth are known all over Eurasia. Therefore, as a safety measure, in the Germanic-speaking world the name was changed. Quite possibly, both bear and björn, assuming that they are related, mean “brown.” Now humans could talk of the brown one, and the bear got no inkling of the topic. On the other hand, calling a boy Björn guaranteed the boy’s strength and invincibility. Being Bjornson was also nice. The Slavs renamed the beast “honey-eater.” Not a bad idea either.
What is true of the bear is also true of the wolf. The word may have meant “tearer.” At one time, anthropologists and linguists were fond of using the term noa, which means “a word devoid of magic.” It carries the same connotations as taboo: once the real name has been replaced with a harmless synonym, it loses its force and stops posing danger. Today that term hardly ever occurs in linguistic works. Taboo has played an outstanding role not only in naming (or rather renaming) animals famous for their ferocity but also snakes, toads, mice, and rats, among others. Every now and then, rather than coining an innocuous replacement, people would deliberately garble the word by transposing sounds in it. The more ingenuity they showed in disguising the original term, the less hope we have to ferret out its etymology, and, even when we may hit the nail on the head, there is no certainty that we hit the right nail and precisely on the head.
In comparative studies, researchers face several situations. Here is one case. If bear does mean “brown,” we have some support for the adjective outside Germanic, though the look-alikes in Romance and Lithuanian (French brun, Italian bruno, and Lithuanian brúnas) are loans from Germanic and thus do not count. However, Sanskrit babhrús “reddish-brown” is a good match, and so is Greek phrúnē, though phrúnē means “toad” (familiar to many from Phryne, the nickname of the much admired courtesan). Consequently, the step from an animal name to a color name gains in verisimilitude. (Incidentally, beaver also means “brown.) But sometimes an animal name has no obvious cognates. Fox probably does have them, even though they are disputable. Be that as it may, no non-Germanic animal sounds like fox. Then we begin to cast about for a possible taboo substitute. Immediately the idea turns up that fox means “sly” or “treacherous.”
It is not quite clear how the fox has become the embodiment of cunning and deceit. Because of its long tail? Or did it acquire this feature by default? Bears and wolves are prone to attack humans, while the fox, though a predator, is secretive and avoids contact with humans, except as a pest. A secretive creature must have something to conceal and do it cleverly. The European tradition of the shifty fox goes back to Aesop, in whose fables we already find the familiar stratification of the animal kingdom, with the lion at the top. Most of us have learned about the fox’s tricks from children’s versions of folk tales, but they seem to be the product of book tradition. Presumably, Aesop had his plots from folklore, then they became part of book culture, and “returned to the people.” This is a common process. For example, the chronicle of the Danish historian Saxo was at least partly based on oral sources. He was the first to tell a crude version of Hamlet’s feigned madness and revenge. Shakespeare took this plot from an English translation of Saxo. Later a version of the tragedy was recorded as a French folk tale. The story came full circle.
This is what also happened to the fox. In the Middle Ages the beast was made famous by the book of Reynard, or Reineke. It is a long poem, extant in Middle Dutch, Old French, and Middle Low (= northern) German. Germans enjoy Goethe’s retelling of it. In English, the version told by Caxton (1481, but published four centuries later) is available. Caxton, who was the first to introduce printing to England, learned Dutch in the Netherlands and must have enjoyed the poem, which is indeed a delight. The protagonist appears as a cruel, brilliantly resourceful feudal lord and a trickster, perhaps even the queen’s (the lioness’s) paramour. He lives in a castle, not in a hole, and brings up his cubs in the true spirit of perfidy. Yet in search of a possible taboo word, one would seek in vain for an adjective or noun meaning “sly” and resembling fox. Old Icelandic fox “deceit” exists, but it is a borrowing of Old Engl. fox “fox.” If fox is a “noa word,” it does not mean “sly.” The Scandinavian word for fox is refr, and Refr is a common name of a crook in the sagas.
Still another scenario in dealing with animal names will be discussed next week. But before I finish this post, perhaps something has to be said about the relation between the words fox and vixen. The German pair is fully transparent: Fuchs and Füchsin. Although their analogs existed in Old English, English has lost umlauted vowels, so that the counterpart of Füchsin must have yielded fixen, and this is indeed what happened. But a few words in the modern language reached the so-called Standard in their Kentish form, with initial f- voiced (compare also Dutch vos “fox”). To this process we owe v– in vixen, van, and vat. Phonetic change has severed the tie between fox and vixen to such an extent that students are usually surprised when they hear that vixen and fox belong together, obvious as the connection between them may be. Words tend to live up to their etymology. It would be odd if the fox had not concealed the form of the name designating its loyal mate. About the loyalty of Reineke’s wife we learn from the poem. She constantly predicts that her husband will be hanged, and this is what would have happened if Reineke were not so much smarter than everybody else at court. They needed him, and the scoundrel went scot-free. Customs in the corridors of power never change.
Image credits: (1) Constellations of Ursa Major, detail, from Persian Manuscript 373. Asian Collection. Wellcome Images, MS PERSIAN 373, L0030691. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) William Caxton, English etching, 1816. The Granger Collection, New York. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Gorleston Psalter, 1310s, British Library Add Ms. 49622. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.