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A zoological kindergarten

About two months ago, Mr Timothy Meinch wrote me that he was working on an article about the names of baby animals and asked me a few questions. Later, we talked on the phone, but he decided not to go to great etymological lengths and produced an entertaining piece for the journal Discovery about such names, with a brief reference to our conversation and a series of cute pictures. Words like pup and cub are not too numerous—nothing resembling the endless array of terms for groups of animals (a flock of sheep, a litter of pigs, a pack of wolves, a herd of elephants, a school of fish, and so forth), but a few are exotic. This episode suggested to me that a more in-depth discussion of some of the names featured in Discovery could be of interest to the readers of this blog.

It is not necessary to have seven kids for a hungry wolf

The first, perhaps surprising, thing about the words I’ll address below is that language rarely associates the names of adult animals with the names chosen for their progeny. Yet the same is true of humans! Wouldn’t it be natural to call a little boy manling and a little girl wifeling (wife at one time meant “woman”)? Kaa, the great python in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, calls Mowgli “manling,” and the word also turns up in another context in this work, but also in the speech of an animal. Be that as it may, for some reason, we have boy and girl (both words are of unclear origin; anyone interested in a full discussion of them will find it in my Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology). Language sometimes treats babies with condescension, to put it mildly, because the same word may refer to a small child and all kinds of worthless (!) objects. Other words of this type are borrowings from the “nursery,” as they used to say in the past, that is, from babbling or from adults’ imitation of babbling. Puppet and puppy, with their reduplication (p/p), along with papa, mamma, and baby, have always been recognized as imitating baby words. The same must be true of the verb babble. Children like to play with animals. That is why dolls and small pets sometimes have similar names.

In this context, only one association is worthy of mention. A baby is the fruit of the womb. In English, only child reminds us of this natural connection. The evidence comes from Gothic (a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century CE); in it, the noun kilþ-ei “womb” turned up (þ had the value of th in English thick), and Old English cild– is an exact cognate of kilþ-. Not improbably, Engl. calf has the same root, but I’ll deal with calf later. German Kind “child” is akin (!) to English kith, kindred, and of course, kin. Kind and child are different words.

A baby deer fawning on its mother

Nothing is more natural than my idea of calling a boy manling. Compare mannikin “little man” and its doublet mannequin, which traveled to France and returned to its native Germanic soil with a specialized sense. If modern logic were allowed to triumph, we would have had a dozen etymologically transparent words like chicken and gosling. Chicken has the root of cock “rooster” (indeed, on a different grade of ablaut) and a diminutive suffix (-n ~ -en), typical of animal names. Such is also Gothic gait-ein “kid,” that is, “little goat.” Also, kitten looks like an animal name with the same old suffix, but its Romance (Anglo-Norman) source ended in –oun; it was modified much later. Duckling and gosling are perfect too, because –ling is another diminutive suffix.

Judging by the evidence of language, little mammals, contrary to little birds (chickens, ducklings, goslings), are rarely associated with their parents. An especially curious case is piglet, a humorous, late coinage, which most of us probably remember thanks to Milne’s story of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. Once upon a time, English had a “respectable” name for a little pig, namely, farrow, related to German Ferkel (the same meaning) and Latin porcus (which we recognize in pork and porcupine), but it acquired the sense “a litter of pigs,” and language failed to produce a replacement from a different root.

Those who coined animal names were indeed guided by logic; the trouble is that it did not coincide with ours. The names of grownup animals occasionally reflected their functions (forget about slang and think of such modern words as beefer and milker), and the train of ancient people’s thought can sometimes be reconstructed, but in most cases the sought-for origin remains unknown. The same holds for the name of their babies. It is obvious that ewe ~ sheep and ram don’t correlate with lamb; cow and bull have nothing to do with calf, foal has no ties with its parents stallion ~ stud and mare (but filly comes in most useful!), and think of stag, doe ~ roe, and fawn. Occasionally new names ousted their venerable predecessors: for instance, sheep (Germanic) supplanted ewe (a word of great Indo-European antiquity). Horse and German Pferd have nothing to do with Latin equus, kid does not resemble goat (goats have been maltreated more than any other inhabitants of our animal farm: English has only billy goat and nanny goat or he-goat and she-goat), and so on. I have discussed a few animal names in this blog (see the post of 4 October 2017 on ewe, lamb, and sheep) and devoted an entire series to dog (the first installment goes back to 4 May 2016).

Today, I’ll begin a story of whelp, because my topic is the names of baby animals, but a last aside is still needed. Few words give more trouble to etymologists than animal names, even though being in trouble is an etymologist’s natural state. One of the reasons for their predicament is that animal names tend to become migratory words (Wanderwörter, as they are called in German). Since our early ancestors were hunters and nomads and depended on animals for their well-being, the names of their prey and domesticated animals traveled with them. All that happened so long ago that the paths of the ancient hunters and nomads can seldom be recovered with certainty.

It is hard to trace these hunters’ paths. (Image: principal scene of the “Hunt krater”, made in Corinth ca. 570 B.C.. Watercolour by A. Dahlsteen, 176- (?). Credit: Wellcome Collection.)

Now back to whelp. The word’s Old English form was hwelp. The modern spelling is predictable. Many words that once began with hw– are today spelled with wh-. Some people still pronounce hw– in why, what, where, and so forth and distinguish which from witch and wen from when. Whelp has several cognates: Old Saxon hwelp, Old High German hwelf, and Old Norse hvelpr. The modern reflexes (continuations) still sound almost the same: Dutch welp, German Welf, Icelandic hvalpur (with similar forms in the other Scandinavian languages). And here the spoor becomes cold: no obviously related forms have been found outside Germanic. The questions this situation poses are familiar. Was whelp a local Germanic coinage whose initial “motivation” we are unable to guess, or does the word have related forms elsewhere in Indo-European (if so, where are they?), or, finally, are we dealing with a borrowing from an unknown source (substrate)? And the most obvious question: does whelp have anything to do with wolf?

This is where I’ll resume my story next week.

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