Friday, January 25, 2013

Another Squirrel Story

I know a lot of people consider squirrels a nuisance,
but when they appear in small numbers, 
I enjoy their finer qualities:  grace, charm, agility.
I like their playfulness too.
Not to mention the cutest little faces, stickiest little feet, and the bushiest tails.

I've noticed that sometimes, 
even the mere word "squirrel" evokes a comedic sense.
In those cases, I wonder if it is the influence of the animal or the word. 
Perhaps it's the consonant cluster at the beginning of the word. 
That "skw" sound followed by the "r" and "l" sounds, called liquids in linguistics,
may just spark some sense of the silly or inane
because of the way we have to contort our lips to say it.
If that's true, it has little to do with the origin of the word, 
which is interesting, but not particularly funny.

photo courtesy of

According to,
the word squirrel came to English from French and Latin,
which borrowed it from Greek skiouros, meaning "shadow-tailed." 
Douglas Harper, who developed the web site,
speculates that the word may have meant
"that which makes shade with its tail."
Sure, why not. 
But I also like the interpretation that squirrels 
move quickly and surreptitiously, like a shadow. 
It makes them a little more mysterious.
This week, I was in a classroom with a window 
that looked out on a small courtyard.
I saw a gray squirrel slip down a small tree near the window
and head for some pansies planted by a door.
The squirrel pawed the leaves, stuck its face into the foliage,
and emerged with two green pansy leaves in its mouth.

I watched as it made its way to the tree.
I wondered if it planned to line its nest 
with some extra insulation against the freezing cold, but no.
The squirrel rested in the valley between the tree's branching trunks
and nibbled the pansy leaves. 
And it may be my imagination, 
but I thought I detected a hint of bliss on its little face.
And that's pretty charming.

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