Not Squirreling Around: The Etymology of the Word Squirrel


The word squirrel in English was borrowed from French centuries after the Norman incursion in 1066

The original English term before that was acquerne.

Pronounced [ˈɑːkwern] (but who knows maybe people would later have ended up saying [ˈæːkwern]), it’s cognate with the German word Eichhorn (usually in the diminutive: Eichörnchen, which looks like ‘oak croissant’, but isn’t). Both the English and German terms come from the Germanic *aikwernô composed of the roots for ‘oak’ and ‘squirrel’, perhaps differentiating a squirrel that prefers oak trees or being simply pleonastic (*wern ‘squirrel’ by itself may have gotten overlooked too easily or clashed with a more salient homonym at some point in the history of West Germanic). The Indo-European form was *wer ‘squirrel’, but interestingly had a homonym meaning ‘burn’. Given that the species of squirrel common across Eurasia (including the edges of areas of proposed non-Anatolian Indo-European Urheimat) is the red squirrel and looks like its ears are on fire, it’s fun to think there may be a connection there.

It’s possible that acquerne and squirrel competed for a time before the Middle English term was abandoned for the trendier French alternative.

Important to note: acquerne and acorn come from separate, unrelated roots. Acorn is from the Old English ǣcern which referred to the mast (nut fruit, usually accumulated on the ground) of any tree and comes from the Indo-European *ħógeħ ‘berry’.


The Longest Word

Sure, there’s pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. I learned that in 5th grade. But that’s a compound word. And a very contrived one at that, not actually used to refer to the disease that normally goes by the term silicosis. Ah, isn’t that refreshing? To make an Orwellian paring down to a smaller word that’s just as sufficient?

How about the longest word in the English language that might be used in any given day or at least is not a compound word. What would that be?

This is a slightly more difficult answer to come up with (and try it for and old language like Latin!) because of our fascination with the contrived and unpragmatic. Everyone just starts talking about volcanic diseases and descriptions of proteins that take 3 hours to recite. (Yes, this is how unhelpful the internet can be even in the 10s.) What about non-compound words? Well, there is a Wikipedia article on the longest single syllable words in English. What if it has more than one syllable but isn’t a compound word? I haven’t found an explicit answer, so, alas, a derived version of such a one syllable word will have to do for now.

The longest word in the English language, not made up about Smurfs:


Strength is a noun, which can be made into the verb strengthen, and then in the past tense it would be strengthened. Both bound morphemes on a very cluster heavy syllable. (I’m sure Polish has a heavier.) And because we’re concerned about sounds rather than letters (what does that even signify except a tortured history for the poor word), the word’s syllable structure is: CCCCVC.CSC [stʃɹɛŋ.θn̩d]. (Where to break the syllables, before or after the dental fricative is of course up for debate.) Four consonants—count them, four!—a vowel, two consonants, a syllabic consonant (for bonus points), and a final consonant. That’s nine segments total.

That’s a mouthful for many people around the world.

Speaking of mouthfuls for even our linguistic next of kin (OK, half-kin. You win Normans!), honorable mentions are:

  • strengths [stʃɹɛŋθs] CCCCVCCC, longest single syllable word, 8 segments, initial 4 segment cluster
  • scrunched [skɹʌntʃt] CCCVCCCC, 8 segments, final 4 segment cluster
  • squirreled [skwɚld] CCCVCC, as in she squirreled around the table
  • schmaltzed [ʃmɑʟtst] CCVCCCC, technically English meaning ‘imparted a sentimental atmosphere to’, I guess compare to schmoozed [ʃmuzd] (only 5 segments) being a word we consider to be fully adopted into English

So, turns out the longest word is the strongest word!



Having Your Cake


We say have your cake and eat it too even though having cake now means eating it.

“Here, have some cake.”

So the phrase now sounds to us like ‘eat your cake and eat it too’. No wonder this phrase is lost on many even before the speaker spouts an apocryphal story about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. To keep this phrase up-to-date we really should be saying keep your cake and eat it too. Ah, now that makes sense. You want to keep the decoration of the icing job, but you also want to cut into it and just fucking eat cake. How’s that for some heavy descriptivist prescription?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase was attested as far back as 1562:

What man
I trow ye raue
Wolde ye bothe eate your cake and haue your cake?

—The Proverbs & Epigrams of John Heywood

And it should stay there.

Because when it comes to language change and being understood, you can’t keep your cake and eat it to.

Why Is a Toilet Called a John?

Why do we call a toilet a john? The crapper is because American soldiers in WWII saw Thomas Crapper‘s British brand all over the place there. And it helped that crap already meant ‘chaff, cut portion, discarded extra’. But john? Why is the place of waste named after a person! Another brand name? Nope, there’s no trace of brand name and John Harrington in 1596 was already calling it “Ajax” which was a nice classical take on the common term a jakes for a privy. Well now another common name used to mean the place of excrement disposal–this doesn’t help us. Let’s take a look at progression from the beginning.

Common Name

Jakke, Jacke, Jake—all something close to [jakə]

All forms of Jacques from Old French; from Latin Iacobus; from the Biblical figure, Hebrew: Ya’akob [jaɁakob]

Or perhaps in fact an English nickname for John (Hebrew Yokhanan [joħanan], that pharyngeal may have gone velar), but we’re not gonna go there.

Regardless, a really common name.

Common Person

Both Jack and John

The name was so common that it became metonymical for any common person, the plentiful Johns and Jacks of the farming countryside, i.e. the 90-so% of the population for centuries in Europe.

cf. parallel development in France with Jacques (Old French name) > Jacquerie ‘the peasantry’ (Middle French) and the much later every Tom, Dick, and Harry


Then we arrive. How do you politely say that you’re going to do something that smells bad and needs to be kept generally separate for some semblance of sanitation?

I’m going to Jake’s house. > I’m going to Jake’s. / I’m going to the Jakes.

the jakes

Thus: ‘I’m going to a common destination intentionally vaguely’

Cf. the intentional vagueness employed in calling a prostitute’s customer a john. It’s unmentionable, so we keep our reference so general that the details cannot be identified–or at least feel verbally untouched.


The switch to another common name.

I’m going to John’s house. / I’m going to see Cousin John. (because you had a lot of them in the village) > I’m going to the John.

the john

When Did the Switch Happen?

Anywhere between 1596 when John Harrington wrote a book about flush toilets and 1932 when the term john meaning ‘toilet’ was apparently first attested. Flush toilets started being mass produced in the 1840s, but it’s not hard to think of jakes/jake and john being interchangeable long before that.


  1. “Flush toilet” Wikipedia
  2. Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary

Punch’s Razor

Wow that’s a cool name.

John Punch, in 1639, wrote a commentary on John Duns’s work (also Duns Scotus / Don Scotus) and in the course of that, incorporated his paraphrase of some of William of Ockham’s ideas.

Well, that was a mouthful. Lots of old Johns and Williams without real last names. 400-700 years later this makes them very hard to necessarily and sufficiently refer to.

So Occam’s1 Razor stated as

Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate

could rightly be called Punch’s Razor. Which still sounds damn awesome.

Those words are commonly attributed to Ockham himself, but they are in fact Punch’s wording. You can blame the symbolic power of a convenient label.


1Yes, the philosophical concept is spelled different from his hometown. Again, the difficulty with transfer of a dynamic, uncodified knowledge system (i.e. medieval spelling) across half a millennium.

Turkic Languages

85%  of Turkic by speakers is Turkish (Turkey), Azeri (Azerbaijan), Uzbek (Uzbekistan), Kazakh (Kazakhstan), and Uyghur [ʔʊjˈʁʊː]* (Xinjiang, China).

Main Turkic Mod.png

Political divisions where 85% of Turkic languages are spoken. Modified from map courtesy of amCharts.

Assuming an urheimat stretching approx. from the Uyghur to the Sakha regions, the above distribution includes the southern portion of that, with the addition of spreading quite successfully west to and across the Caspian Sea.

You can see the other 15%, extending over a much large geographic distribution, with the maps on the Turkic languages wiki page (which is where these statistics came from).

There’s not a huge difference from Proto-Turkic to modern Turkish. Just some vowel changes and a voicing change on some consonants. And loss of /g/ as indicated by the silence of ‹ğ›. That’s most of it (of course there are a few more).

Relatively high mutual intelligibility (for Oghuz branch). It’s not automatic, but it’s rather easy for speakers to adapt and acquire. For a full report, check out Beyond Highbrow’s article on the topic.

For more reference, internet answers, and anecdotes on mutual intelligibility here are some further links:
Word Reference forums
Victor Mair’s Mutual Intelligibility Quiz elicits some useful reports from readers
Odd source, but the limited examples are interesting



* How to Pronounce Uyghur

The native pronunciation of Uyghur is [ʔʊjˈʁʊː]/[ʔʊjˈʁʊɾ]. I’m not sure if the /r/ would be pronounced word-finally. For a little bit easier version of the correct pronunciation, you might say [ʊiˈʁu]/[ʊiˈʁuɾ]. For a negotiated, Anglicized pronunciation you’d be looking at options or tokens like these: [u.iˈɹu]/[u.iˈɹɚ]; [ˈu.iˌɹu]/[ˈu.iˌɹɚ], [ˈu.iˌɹʌ], [ˈu.iˌɹə] (the [i] could also be stressed, but this would be the least correct of the negotiated pronunciations); [wiˈɹu], [ˈwi.ɹu]/[ˈwi.ɹɚ], [ˈwi.uɚ].


Bidirectional G.jpg

You Consume These Horrible Sounding Chemicals Every Day

It’s time to block off a lot of time from work and call all your chemistry teacher friends, cause you’re about to do a lot of drugs. In fact, you are gonna have to do every substance on this list today or you will die.

retinoic acid
retinyl palmitate
pantothenic acid
folate / folic acid
folinic acid
ascorbic acid (yes, [ə.skɔ˞.bɪk])
dl-tocopheryl acetate
phylloquinone / phytomenadione / phytonadione
menaquinone-4 / menatetrenone
alpha-linolenic acid
linoleic acid
docosahexaenoic acid
gamma-linolenic acid

OK, if that’s not enough for you and you still wanna ride the A-train, B-train, or whatever train that took you on, then here are some substances that will make things interesting. Some of them are in fact life-or-death essential, while some of may perhaps be harmful. You’ll have to do more than see long scary chemistry words to find out.

hydrogen dioxide
sodium chloride
dicalcium phosphate
magnesium citrate
silicon dioxide
sodium hydroxide
hydrogen peroxide
sodium bicarbonate
potassium sodium tratrate

The substance on the first list are not actually drugs, but scary sounding chemical names for vitamins. The second list is things like water, salt, sand, alcohol, and caffeine. When you write out the chemical formulas for even the most common and essential compounds, the pile of Neo-Grecolatin rises and felicity flies out the door, leading to ocular dilation, heart palpitations, anxiety, racing thoughts—and delusions of chemical grandeur.

Common names for everything helps, as in the case with caffeine (the only chemical name for it is hugely inaccessible and grossly obtuse), but our relationship with chemistry terms—and jargon in general—needs to change: more education and less usage except in a learning or otherwise clarified environment.