Q I’ve watched the squirrels in my backyard demonstrate great ingenuity in getting into every squirrel-proof birdfeeder I’ve installed. Is there anything interesting in the history of the word “squirrel”? – L.H., Saco, Maine

A: The ingenuity you’ve observed in your backyard squirrels is present to a degree in the word’s etymology. “Squirrel” ultimately comes from the Greek words “skia,” meaning “shadow,” and “oura,” meaning “tail,” which combined to form “skiouros.” Presumably the Greeks noticed that when a squirrel sits erect, it often raises its bushy tail up against its back and over its head, providing some shade.

The English word had a number of spellings from the time Chaucer wrote of “squyrelis and bestes smale of gentil kynde” (squirrels and small animals of gentle nature). By the 17th century the spelling we currently use had become standard.

The meaning of the word “squirrel” may also have been somewhat broader at one point. Shakespeare used it to refer to a very small dog in his play “Two Gentlemen of Verona”: “The other squirrel was stol’n from me – and then I offered her mine own, who is a dog as big as ten of yours.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.


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