In my set of Rossignol Art of Instruction cards, the card on fur:

At the bottom, three fur-bearing animals: le vison ‘mink’, la hermine ‘stoat, ermine’, and le putois ‘polecat’.

mustelid. All three animals are mustelids, in the family Mustelidae. The name of the family is from Latin mustela ‘weasel’.

le vison.  The drawing is of an American mink. From Wikipedia:

The American mink (Neovison vison) is a semiaquatic species of mustelid native to North America, though human intervention has expanded its range to many parts of Europe and South America. … It is the most frequently farmed animal for its fur, exceeding in economic importance the silver fox, sable, marten, and skunk.

French vison seems to have a Germanic origin; compare German Wiesel, English weasel.

NOAD2 on the origin of mink:

late Middle English (denoting the animal’s fur): from Swedish

la hermine. From Wikipedia:

The stoat (Mustela erminea), also known as the ermine or short-tailed weasel, is a species of Mustelidae native to Eurasia and North America

… In the stoat’s northern range, it adopts a completely white coat (save for the black tail-tip) during the winter period.

… Stoat skins are prized by the fur trade, especially in winter coat, and used to trim coats and stoles. The fur from the winter coat is referred to as ermine.

NOAD2 says of Old French hermine:

probably from medieval Latin (mus) Armenius ‘Armenian (mouse)’

Stoat it takes back to late Middle English, but the etymological trail dries up there. Animal names are often etymologically problematic.

le putois. From Wikipedia:

The European polecat (Mustela putorius) — also known as the black or forest polecat (as well as a host of other names) — is a species of mustelid native to western Eurasia and North Africa. It is of a generally dark brown colour, with a pale underbelly and a dark mask across the face.

… The European polecat is a valuable fur bearer, whose pelt (fitch) is more valuable than the steppe polecat’s. Its skin is used primarily in the production of jackets, capes and coats. It is particularly well suited for trimmings for women’s clothing. The tail is sometimes used for the making of paintbrushes.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is also known as the American polecat. But in North America, polecat is used to refer to skunks (in the family Mephitidae, especially the genus Mephitis — the name from Latin mephitis ‘noxious exhalation’).

French putois goes back to Latin putidus ‘rotten, decaying, foul’, based on the verb putēre ‘stink, be rotten, be putrid’ (note the species name putorius and English putrid, both involving Latin putor ‘stench, stink’).

NOAD2 on polecat:

Middle English: perhaps from Old French pole ‘chicken’ [modern French poule] + cat

(The connection with chickens would be that polecats prey on poultry. The connection with cats is that polecats are cat-like; that part of the etymology is not disputed.)

OED3 (Sept. 2006) goes into the etymology in much more detail, noting an alternative that relates the first element to Anglo-Norman pulentpullent and Old French / Middle French pullent ‘stinking, disgusting, dirty’ (compare modern French puer ‘to stink’, puant ‘stinking’) and discounting an etymological relationship to pole referring to a long, slender, rounded piece of wood or metal (though it gives some evidence that the word has been (eggcornishly) reanalyzed in this way).

2 Responses to “fur”

  1. A murder! | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A blog mostly about language « fur […]

  2. Sexual lexical semantics | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] side; the proverbial sexual activity of certain animals, in particular minks (a topic suggested by my recent posting on three fur-bearing mustelids); and the lexical semantics of the verb fuck. You can see the […]

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