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‘Vulpes vulpes,’ or foxes have holes. Part 2

Last week, I discussed the role of taboo in naming animals, a phenomenon that often makes a search for origins difficult or even impossible. Still another factor of the same type is the presence of migratory words. The people of one locality may have feared, hunted, or coexisted in peace with a certain animal for centuries. They, naturally, call it something. Later their neighbors, who are less familiar with the creature, borrow the name and pass it on to their neighbors, and so it goes. Once the word becomes common property, nobody remembers the center of its dissemination. At least one of the names relevant to the subject in hand makes us think of “migration.” The Old Icelandic for “fox” (mentioned last week) was refr. Although outside Scandinavia the word does not occur, it is usually traced to an ancient Indo-European root meaning “shining” (the implication is “a red animal”: see below!). But the Finnish for “fox” is repo, nearly the same word, so that refr could have been a borrowing, whatever the direction. To make matters worse, we find Spanish and Portuguese raposa, Ossetian rubas ~ robas, and so forth (so forth means Greek and Sanskrit). Most likely, the animal’s name “migrated” with fur trade. However, this hypothesis does not account for the word’s etymology, because somewhere it had to be native. Perhaps refr does have the Indo-European root that means “shining,” but we will hardly ever know the truth.

The only thing about the origin of fox that does not cause disagreement is its grammatical gender. Fox is really fok-s, whose characteristic ending s shows that the word is masculine, and indeed, Old High German foha and Old Icelandic fóa have preserved the feminine form. It is curious that the medieval Scandinavians had fóa (which, incidentally, did not always designate the vixen) and still needed refr. We also know the Gothic word for “fox”: it was fauho (read au as short o in Engl. fox), masculine. The craftiness of the fox is connected with female charms and sorcery all over the world. Likewise, Slavic lisa (feminine) is the main representative of the species. Reineke ~ Reynard is a male only because he is a member of the king’s retinue, but in folklore the fox is nearly always a she.

A portrait of the fox as a young beast
A portrait of the fox as a young beast

If we assume that Latin vulpes represents with some accuracy the ancient Indo-European name of the fox, then the more or less similar forms elsewhere may be taboo alterations of the basic word, with Germanic refr and foh-a ~ fok-s being complete replacements of it. The repertory of taboo variants for the fox in the languages of the world (in so far as we can decipher them) is not rich. The animal is usually called “a long-tail,” “a bushy tail,” “red,” and “stinker.” Surprisingly, as mentioned in Part 1, “sly,” the especially prominent feature of the fox in popular culture, never shows up in that list.

The most often expressed opinion connects fox with Sanskrit púcchas “tail”; for comparison: northern Engl. tod means both “tail” and “fox.” An alternative etymology points to Russian pukh “down, fuzz.” The two p-words are related, so that we are dealing with the same root. However, the meanings are different; calling an animal a beast with a long tail is not the same as calling it furry. The chance of the relationship between fox and either púcchas or pukh is rather high, and this is what I meant when last time I said that fox, even though it does looks like a taboo word, still seems to have a respectable Indo-European etymology. I’ll skip several other conjectures that strike me as improbable or even fanciful.

Fee-fi-fo-fum, or being able to identify a particular smell.
Fee-fi-fo-fum, or being able to identify a particular smell.

Before going on, I have to tell a short story. In the days of old street cars (like the one named Desire), a little girl asked her mother how that vehicle moves. The woman gave her daughter a detailed explanation about wires, rails, and electricity. The girl listened patiently and said: “No, this is not the way it goes.” “And how does it go?” wondered the mother. “Ding-dong” answered the girl. The next hypothesis about the origin of fox is of the ding-dong kind. Not long ago, a German scholar noted that one of the most common interjections expressing disgust is fu ~ foo. Compare fee-fie-fo-fum/ I smell [!] the blood of an Englishman, Shakespeare’s favorite fie, and the interjection phooey. Artur Kutzelnigg, the German linguist who published a short article on fox (1980), gave no English examples, but his conclusion did not depend on English. According to him, fox got its name from the interjection fuh! or buh!, or puh! Perhaps it did. If so, then all the learned suggestions about Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Proto-Germanic turn into some sort of ding-dong. Elmar Seebold was so impressed by Kitzelnigg’s idea that he mentioned it in his edition of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary.

In dealing with the history of fox, we should take into account another complicating circumstance. Quite often the same word designates more than a single animal. Thus, the fox occasionally shares its name with the wolf, the jackal, and even the dog. The Indo-European name of the fox, the one that resembles Latin vulpes, is almost indistinguishable from Germanic wolf; nor is Latin lupus too far behind. One can imagine some term like “tearer,” “cattle thief,” “pest,” or even “enemy,” with later more or less arbitrary specialization. It does not seem to be the case with fox; yet this factor should not be forgotten.

A streetcar named etymology: Ding-dong
A streetcar named etymology: Ding-dong

So where are we with fox? Fox is not the original Indo-European name of vulpes vulpes. In Germanic, that name has been retained in wolf. Fox is a taboo replacement of the ancient word, perhaps with reference to its fur or tail. The fou-fou idea strikes me as less probable but not impossible. Etymological statements, as I have said more than once, are not theorems: they cannot be proved with reference to a set of postulates; everything in them is based on probabilities, not certainties. Despite Gothic fauho, the original gender of fox seems to have been feminine; if so, fok-s is a later development. In folklore, the stinky beast acquired almost demonic features. Those interested in seeing how even the fox can be outwitted are advised to reread Brer Rabbit’s war with Brer Fox. The famous adventure in the thorn bush is a good place to begin: it will remind the readers how thorny the science of etymology sometimes is, but it will also inspire hope, for Brer Rabbit extricated himself from the bush, escaped his enemy, and thus outfoxed the fox.

Compounds with fox are rather numerous. Two of them have caused controversy. One is the flower name foxglove. Yes, it is indeed fox- not folk’s glove. It is amazing how much has been written about this word and what big guns participated in the battle. Foxfire is less clear. At least one Celtologist, arguing from his material, insists on the connection between foxfire and fox, while Romance scholars sometimes think of Old French fos “fool,” since foxfire, that phosphorescent light, means something deceptive or deluding and is not called ignis fatuus for nothing. Anyway, nowadays Firefox is much better known than foxfire. Finally, if someone can explain why in Irish English foxed means or meant “drunk” (there also is or was the idiom to catch the fox “to get drunk”), I’ll be most grateful for the explanation.

Image credits: (1) Yawning red fox. Photo by Peter G Trimming. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jack and the Beanstalk Giant. English Fairy Tales (1918), by Flora Annie Steel, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham, The Project Gutenberg eBook. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Streetcars – getting on Broadway car, July 11, 1913. Public domain via George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Johan Palme

    Could “fok” be sound-imitative? I know the call of the fox in hungarian is considered “vuk” (on the level of “woof” or “moo”, ie. what you’d teach a child to say).

  2. Robert Lindsay

    Aboriginal people in NSW borrowed the word ‘fox’ for the newly introduced animal. According to Tamsin Donaldson (1980) Ngiyaampaa (CUP), the word ended up in the Ngyiaampa language as ‘pakutha’, a direct transliteration. Phonetic changes are p for f (absence of the sound in Ng), a for o (nearest vowel), k unchanged, th for s (the usual substitution for missing sibilant). That gave them ‘pakth’. Now because of language rules separating certain consonants and that th could not end a word, pakutha. The same thing happened in the neighbouring unrelated Darling River language, Paakantyi, where Luise Hercus (Paakantyi Dictionary, 1993) records it as pakitha.

  3. Robert Lindsay

    *oops, Ngiympaa

  4. Robert Lindsay

    I’ll get it right eventually – Ngiyampaa.
    You have to read very deeply in Tamsin’s book to find that the sound she transcribes as -iya- represents a similar sound to the IPA’s ɛ, as shown in her transcription of (Ng) Kaliyarr, the Lachlan River, generally spelt these days Calare.

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