How the fox got its name

6 September 2013 by Nicolas Fanget, posted in Uncategorized

During a conversation with friends about the vagaries of spelling (honey bee vs bumblebee, house fly vs butterfly and so on), I was reminded of the unusual story of how the fox got its name in French.

 The red fox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_fox), or Vulpes vulpes to give its taxonomic name, is called vulpiculus in Latin. Intringingly, vulpes like lupus comes from the Indo-European, and gave us both “wolf” (http://www.zikkir.net/words/Vulpes) and “lupo/lobo/loup” (http://www.zikkir.net/words/lupus). Vulpiculus therefore actually means “little wolf”, and this is the root of the French name “goupil”.

 

Firefox icon

Credit: Mozilla A red fox captured live on the interweb, today.

Now the more Francophile among you will have noted that the current name used for this animal is “renard”, which very different from any of the words above. Indeed “renard” comes from the Germanic personal name “Reinhart” (http://www.zikkir.net/words/Renard). This phenomenon is known as antonomasia (http://grammar.about.com/od/ab/g/antonomasterm.htm), where a personal name is used instead of a common name or a descriptive phrase is used instead of a proper name. A well-known example by both my readers is my esteemed colleague Dr H. G. of Cromer who uses “Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N” (http://occamstypewriter.org/cromercrox/2013/07/30/questions-questions/) to refer to our common place of employ. The only examples where a personal name is used instead of a common name I can think of in English are actually adjectives: brobdingnagian (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Brobdingnagian), gargantuan (http://www.zikkir.net/words/Gargantuan) instead of gigantic, Orwellian, etc, please feel free to contribute more examples in the comments below.

So this practice of antonomasia seems to be pretty common, but for such a complete switch from the common name to the personal name you would expect this phenomenon to have arisen with print. With plentiful, cheap copy available a particular usage of language would get transmitted quickly across a population. However, unlike Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua (1532), the Roman de Renart, which changed the name of the fox, was first published in 1174, almost fully 350 years before the invention of the printing press (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg)! I would love to hear of similar examples in other languages.


2 Responses to “How the fox got its name”

  1. Dave Adams Reply | Permalink

    Huh ? I re-read the whole discourse and saw no explanation for "the origin of FOX" as implied in the title.

  2. cromercrox Reply | Permalink

    The word 'fox' appears in Old English and has teutonic roots (cf. German 'fuchs'). As for antonomasia I can add three I've used myself - Hitchcockian, Wellsian, Wellesian - and one that's been used by someone else about my writing - Tolkienian.

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