Posted by: Jack Henry | March 23, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Animal English

This past Sunday, our local language-loving Richard Lederer wrote a nice tribute about the San Diego Zoo in his column. Along with that, he included some interesting animal-related etymologies and idioms that I thought you might enjoy. For the full article, click this link: San Diego Union-Tribune.

The English used to call the yellow, shaggy weed a “lion’s tooth” because the jagged, pointed leaves resemble the lion’s snarly grin. During the early 14th century, the lion’s tooth plant took on a French flavor and became the dent-de-lion, “tooth-of-the-lion.” Then it acquired an English accent: dandelion….

When people are capricious and caper about, they are acting like a frisky, playful billy goat. Caprice, capricious, caper and Capricorn all come to us from the Latin caper, “goat.” Goats caper through our English vocabulary:

· A goatee is a trimmed chin beard that resembles the tufts of hair on a goat’s chin. Perhaps the most famous goatee adorns the chin of our own Uncle Sam.

· A cabriolet was originally a light, two-wheeled vehicle drawn by one horse. The jaunty motion of the small carriage reminded some of the frisky leaps of a goat. Hence, cabriole, ultimately shortened to cab.

· The island of Capri is so named because of the goats that graze on it.

· And goats caper in one very common expression in American English. High-strung racehorses are sometimes given goats as stable mates to calm them, and the two animals can become inseparable companions. Certain gamblers have been known to steal the goat attached to a particular horse that they want to run poorly the next day. By extension, when we get someone’s goat, we upset them and throw off their performance.

Biologically, a tadpole is a larval amphibian. Etymologically, tadpole is formed from the Middle English tode, “toad”+ polle, “head” because a tadpole looks like a toad that is all head, with the limbs to grow out later. The clipped form tad swam into American English around 1915 with the meaning “a small amount,” as in “a tad of sugar” and “a tad chilly.”

As for muscle, it is easy to see why the word derives from the Latin musculus—“little mouse.” A twitching muscle resembles the movements of a small mouse beneath the skin.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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