Squirrels as you’ve probably never thought of them

I was reading a review the other day in the online version of the UK newspaper The Guardian. The book reviewed was about the grey squirrel, and raised the problem of determining what is meant by ‘invasive’ or alien species. Once introduced to the British Isles, are such plants or animals a useful addition to the ecosystem, or a threat? And the grey squirrel is perhaps one of the most common and controversial of such introductions (from the USA – like many of our language features – but that’s another story).

At the end of the piece was a word the meaning of which was obvious, but which I’d not come across before:


OED online defines it like this:

adj. and noun, Of or relating to squirrels or to the squirrel family; resembling or characteristic of a squirrel; (Zoology) of or relating to the tribe Sciurini… (earliest citation, 1838).

Zoology. A sciurine rodent; a squirrel (1841).

Further down the list of citations is this figurative one I rather liked: His sciurine hoarding of books and papers. [Vita] Sackville-West, Flame in Sunlight.

In a similar vein is this: Acknowledgements… Pam Wheeler, whose uncommonly sciurine memories at the Britten-Pears Library, Bridcut, Faber Pocket Guide to Britten

All the previous ones were zoological and literal. Does this mean that for the most part the word in the modern era has shifted into use in a metaphorical sense – as in ‘squirrelling something away’ – to suggest someone hoarding or hiding something they value in a manner similar to the squirrel’s habit of burying nuts and other foodstuffs for food in the barren months of winter?

The word derives from the Latin Sciurus, squirrel (and its genus), itself derived from the Greek skiouros, from skia, shade, and oura, tail.

A little further digging online revealed that a male squirrel is known as a boar. A group of squirrels – the collective noun, I suppose –  is a scurry, or a drey – which can also refer to a mother squirrel and her young, according to one website (I didn’t record which one). But this term is to my mind better known for signifying the squirrel’s nest.

As I live in Cornwall I decided to look up the Cornish word; it’s gwiwer.

According to the excellent website Jeanne de Montbaston, by the medievalist and scholar Lucy Allen, the slang term in medieval England for what she delicately refers to as ‘male genitalia’ was ‘squirrel’ – because it was ‘delightfully cute and cuddly’ and a ‘furry little pet’…Hm.

She goes on to place all this in the context of one of her central research interests: the cultural understanding of male and female bodies and sexuality.

So there you are. Who’d have thought that the furry little rascals who regularly empty my birdfeeders have such raunchy connotations…

17 thoughts on “Squirrels as you’ve probably never thought of them

  1. Oh, Simon, I’ll never look at a squirrel the same way again. LOL.

    I do enjoy watching their antics (and watching them being unsuccessfully stalked by my neighbor’s two cats) even if they are of the abhorrent grey variety.

    • I also enjoy seeing their agile antics, but I’m at constant war with them over their ingenious attacks on my bird feeders. They find a way to overcome the most sophisticated ‘squirrel-proof’ devices.

      • The historical references here make a lot of sense.
        Squirrels are rather libidinous creatures and quite matriarchal in the management of their business and love affairs, Simon. As my dear friend and Twitter character Miss. Squirrel muses:

        “Mr Lavery, Sir!

        I always inspect the male squirrels for the brightest eyes and bushiest tales before I invite a group of them to my sleeping platform for a romp. I DO, however, make sure to toss them all out in the morning. After all, there are NUTS to gather!”

        Hugs, and may ALL your Cornish nut piles remain secret, secure and uninvaded by predators,

        Miss. Squirrel
        Lifestyle Coach/Advice Columnist/Security Adviser

    • There’s a family of squirrels living in the huge lime tree next to my back garden. They’re the ones who devise ever more sciurine plans to break into my bird feeders. I’ve tried water guns, but they just laugh at the soakings. They look up at my window with a look that says: ‘Is that the best you can do?’

  2. Liked those reflections on the origin of the word Squirrel. Have always found the related verb ‘squirrelling (away)’ very expressive of busy secretive hoarding (and scuffly action). Those qualities are suggested in the Cornish word as well somehow, though I don’t know how it would be pronounced.

    • No, I’m not clear how many Cornish words are pronounced. I presume the ‘w’ is the same as in English ‘where’, rather than a ‘u’ sound as I think it is in other Celtic languages. I agree about the scuffly quality suggested by ‘squirrelling away’. I wasn’t sure if that word needed a double L, but I suppose it does, as in English ’travelling’ (but of course Americans only use one).

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