Muskrat ramble

This is just silliness, with very little linguistic content. You’ve been warned.

In the New York Times of 11 April, Gail Collins (p. A15) refers in passing to Winfield, Missouri’s “devastating 2008 flood, when a levee breach caused by a burrowing muskrat damaged about 100 homes.” (She mentions the town because it recently re-elected someone to a fourth term as mayor, even though he’d been dead a month.) The newspaper headlines, in a whole collection of papers, went: Burrowing Muskrat Causes Levee To Fail In Missouri.

The word muskrat by itself tickles me, and somehow burrowing muskrat is even better. Then the creature manages to cause a disaster. Disasters are not, of course, in themselves funny, but when they arise from inconsequential events that cascade, they can seem risible. Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents has a complex set piece about a Louisiana salt dome disaster that runs through several acts; unless you were there, it’s achingly funny. On a smaller scale, I have any number of tales of squirrels who shut down the electrical supply by gnawing on cables — frying themselves in the process, of course.

[Ok, a little bit of linguistics. Burrowing muskrat has at least two very different senses: one in which it refers to a type of creature (known — whether accurately or not, whether it is actually a muskrat or not — for its propensity to burrow), another in which the PRP burrowing is understood as conveying the progressive aspect of burrow: ‘a muskrat that was burrowing [at the time referred to]’. So far as I know, there is no creature conventionally known as a “burrowing muskrat”, so we go with the progressive reading.]

3 Responses to “Muskrat ramble”

  1. Chris Waigl Says:

    German: Bisamratte, from Turkish besem, meaning “smell” + Ratte meaning “rat” (though of course it isn’t one). Wikipedia lists a lot of German informal names – Moschusratte, Zwergbiber [dwarf beaver], Bisambiber, Zibetratte, Sumpfkaninchen [swamp rabbit], Sumpfhase [swamp hare].

    They were supposed to be doing a lot of damage to river banks where I grew up and local tenants were allowed to shoot them. The first animal I’ve seen being shot was a muskrat. Though Wikipedia says there are for and against arguments to be made regarding its place in the European ecosystem. (The German entry for “Bisamratte” is a good bit larger than the English one for “muskrat”.)

  2. Andrew H. Says:

    What’s one Missouri town electing a dead man to a fourth term as mayor next to the whole state electing a dead man to a first term in the US Senate? But we haven’t done that in over 8 years.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    I defend that practice. What, you’re supposed to elect someone you think is not competent or whose positions/party you despise simply because the electioneering laws mean that his deceased opponent can’t be replaced on the ballot? Better to vote for the dead guy and deal with it – special election, gubernatorial appointment, his wife – than vote for someone bad.

    Caveat: I do not live in Missouri and have never actually voted for a dead man. Though I can envision doing either, under the right circumstances.

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