Word Stories - May 6, 2019 - 3 min

Creatures With Character

Although we humans are quite different from our fellow inhabitants of Earth, we can’t help but see a little bit of ourselves in them. Just look at how often we liken our own physical characteristics or personality traits to those of other creatures, or consider the number of animal-inspired words and expressions used to describe people. The three subjects of this month’s Word Stories are some of the greatest sources of such inspiration, although, as we will see, their reputations are not always deserved.


Lemming is a relatively recent borrowing in English from the Norwegian language. The modern Norwegian word for the lemming is lemen (definite singular form lemenet), but a number of historical spellings are also attested: lemming, lemende, limende, læmende, lömende, lemelde, etc. The origin of the word, as well as its cognates in other Scandinavian languages, has been identified as either Old Norse lómundr or lǽmingr, both denoting the same small rodent. Further etymological investigations offer different hypotheses, listed below in order of decreasing plausibility:

  • An etymon akin to luomek “lemming”, from a Western Sami language such as Lule Sami (belonging to the Uralic rather than the Indo-European family)
  • An unknown Proto-Germanic etymon meaning “barker” (referring to the animal’s call—actually more like a squeak), cognate with Latin and Old Slavic verbs meaning “to bark”
  • The Scandinavian root lemja, meaning “to beat or strike, to be destructive”

A contemporary mythology asserts the mass suicidal tendencies of the species and has given rise to a figurative, pejorative sense for lemming: “a person who joins a mass movement without thinking, often with disastrous results”. Needless to say, lemmings, like other rodents or mammals, do not commit suicide, although some individuals might drown, be crushed or fall to their deaths during periods of intense, usually food-motivated, migrations.

By the late 1960s, the unsound theory had become a feature of popular culture and appeared routinely in newspapers as a metaphor for suicidal, irrational behaviour: “No one had the slightest idea of what was happening, yet all had joined in the mad lemming-like scramble for the waterfront” (The Victoria Islander, February 1970).


The noun sloth is part of the native lexical stock of English, being the direct descendant of similar forms going back to the Proto-Germanic language. It can be analyzed as the fusion of the adjective slow with the noun suffix -th, denoting a state or quality (compare sloth with words like truth, strength, wealth, length, warmth, all from adjectives, or growth and tilth, from verbs). Many variations in spelling are recorded, all of which are derived from the Old English noun slǣwþ (slǣwth), which meant “laziness, indolence, inertia, torpor”, from the same Proto-Germanic base as the adjective slow. In Wycliffe’s Bible (circa 1384), sloth is the normal term used to refer to one of the seven deadly sins, along with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony and wrath. The word appears a dozen times in Wycliffe’s translation of the Old Testament (“Sloth bringeth in sleep; and a negligent soul shall have hunger”, Proverbs 19:15).

In Late Middle English, sloth was also applied to people inclined towards laziness and idleness, or guilty of the sin of sloth. In John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, written between 1386 and 1390, one can read such pronouncements as “Slowthe mai no profit winne”, i.e. “sloths may not gain profit”. Centuries later, this personified sense was applied to the slow-moving, sleep-loving South American mammal. The English “sloth”, meaning the animal, appears to be a parallel translation of the Portuguese preguiça “sloth”, which is related to French paresse, Italian pigrizia and Spanish pereza (all from Latin pigritia “laziness”). Early attestations in English travelogues, such as Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage, date from the early 1600s and sometimes mention the indigenous names for the animal (hay, haüthi, etc.).

South American sloths indeed possess an extremely slow metabolism, sleeping up to 18 hours per day and limiting all movements to a bare minimum.


The charming fox’s name is part of English’s native lexical stock and has remained fairly conservative in spelling since the Old English period. Its Proto-Germanic form has been reconstructed as fuhsaz. Near identical cognates of fox are found in most other Germanic languages (German Fuchs, Scots fox, West Frisian foks, dialectal Frisian foos, Old High German fuhs…), sometimes with the initial f- having moved to v- (Dutch and Low German vos, Old Saxon vohs).

The shift from [f] and [v] is also relevant in English as it accounts for the female form of fox: vixen. The word for a female fox plausibly comes from the (unattested) Old English fyxen, feminine of fox, using an old Germanic feminine suffix and an inflected root vowel. The southern regional pronunciation with initial v- instead of f- starts appearing during the fifteenth century, with the two forms coexisting until the early 1700s, including in dictionaries. The metaphorical and often derogatory sense of the word is an addition of the Early Modern English period, as illustrated by a few often quoted lines from William Shakespeare (“O, when she is angry, she is keene and shrewd, / She was a vixen, when she went to schoole”, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, 1600). Similar developments may be seen in the masculine form’s own metaphorical senses, e.g. “a clever, deceiving person”.

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