All organisms are scientifically named using a Latin binomial system, but many species acquire their common names colloquially. And sometimes a single species has many common names, like Marmots who are sometimes called groundhogs, woodchucks, and even whistlepigs.
There are a variety of interesting squirrel names in English, and even more in other languages. If you’re looking for odd but fascinating dinner party fun facts, read on for some etymology of the word “squirrel.”
Of course, we must start with the Ancient Greeks whose word for “squirrel” (Σκίουρος, pronounced and transliterated as “skiouros”), which translates to “shadow tail.” This name likely came from the myth that squirrels used their tails for shade on hot days. Today, there are two squirrel species found in Greece: the European ground squirrel and the Caucasian squirrel, a tree squirrel that uses its tail for agility and balance. As many Ancient Greek words gave rise to Latin ones, the same is true with “σκίουρος” becoming “sciuridae,” the Latin name for the squirrel family.
The European Romance languages (French, Italian, and Spanish), are derived from Latin. However, while French and English adopted the Latin word for “squirrel,” the Spanish “ardilla” has an alternate etymology. Between the 7th and 1st centuries BC, indigenous Iberians inhabited the peninsula where Spain is today. “Ardilla” comes from the Iberian word for squirrels, “harda.” These Iberians were conquered by the Romans by the 1st century AD, and while most of their language has been lost, some lives on in scripts and as a part of Spanish.
French retains the Latin origin of squirrel for tree squirrels, but has at least one odd colloquial name for the ground squirrel. In English, we sometimes call them “gophers” (a misnomer since true gophers are in a different rodent family) or even “prairie dogs” (an even worse taxonomic misnomer). But in French, ground squirrels are referred to as “sousliks,” which literally means “under-corpses,” referring to their subterrestrial habitat. Descriptive, yet haunting.
However, perhaps the most descriptive name for squirrels probably comes from the German language. The most common squirrel in Germany is the Red Squirrel, which the locals call “Eichhörnchen.” “Eich-” comes from eichel meaning acorn. “Hörn-” is a cognate with the English meaning of “horn.” This alludes to the curly, tufted ears of red squirrels, which look an awful lot like horns. “-Chen” is a German suffix that makes the object little (similar to “-ito” and “-ita” in Spanish). Taken together, “eichhörnchen” translates to “little horned creature that eats acorns.” This is as descriptive as it gets! Many Scandinavian languages have adopted derivatives of this word, as well (“ikorn” in Norwegian, “eekhoorn” in Dutch, “ekorre” in Swedish, and “egern” in Danish.)
Although the word “squirrel” comes from Latin and Ancient Greek, indigenous groups from the Americas also contributed many important words to the Squirrel lexicon. For example, the word “Chipmunk” draws its roots from the word “ajidamoonh” from the Anishinaabe indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region. The word “ajidamoonh” translates to “little upside-downer” referring to the way American Red Squirrels skitter down trees head-first. To the English colonialists who made contact with the Anishinaabe, “ajidamoonh” sounded like “chit-a-mo,” which later became “chipmunk” as the word was assimilated into English.
What’s in a name?
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare said “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet,” arguing that names are irrelevant and meaningless. However, we argue otherwise. The names which are given to animals can offer insights into the natural history of animals in other regions of the world, as well as their interactions with humans and our history. As more species are continuously discovered, their names may be based on those of their close relatives. Additionally, names can serve as records for lost languages, and over time, names can accumulate slight changes, like a centuries-long game of telephone - an etymological record of different cultures coming into contact.
So, next time you see a squirrel, think not just about its silly antics or bushy tail, but consider how these qualities have defined its character across cultures. Consider that somebody else across the world may be watching a different squirrel but thinking the same thoughts about its behavior or appearance, and consider the connections we can form through language and etymology.