February 2 marks the annual Groundhog’s Day. This year’s winter has been particularly harsh on the East Coast, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that Punxsutawney Phil does not see his shadow. While the frost is still thick on the ground, we want to explore the unusual origin of the common name for the herbivorous burrower Marmota monax.
Groundhogs are not at all related to hogs, so their initial compound name is only partially accurate: they indeed live close to the ground. The other common name for the marmots is equally confusing. Woodchucks do not chuck or throw around wood, despite the popular tongue twister that queries how much they would if they could. As burrowing rodents, they don’t have much to do with wood or trees at all. In fact, the name woodchuck is an anglicized loan word from the Algonquian word wuchak.
Pause here for a moment. That language of origin is Algonquian, a 3000-year-old tongue, now extremely endangered, spoken across North America before the arrival of Europeans. Algonquian language dialects dominated in the north and east parts of North America but were also used as far away as the Rockies. Tribes that spoke dialects of Algonquian include the Blackfoot and Cheyenne, Ojibwa and Potawatomi, Fox, Shawnee, Massachusett, Mohican, Powhatan and Shinnecock. Besides the humble woodchuck, English keeps several other Algonquian words alive as loan words. Native flora and fauna dominate the list, which includes chipmunk, caribou, hickory, squash, hominy, moose, opossum, and raccoon.
Like these loan words, Groundhog Day is a loan holiday that evolved into a distinct tradition. European festivals such as Candlemas and Imbolc share this holiday’s focus on weather forecasting. Regardless if a large marmot sees his shadow or not, stay warm, eat some chicken soup, and try to keep alive the rich heritage of American English.
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