The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 22 Oct 2023

Cats in Romance languages

We used to have a cat named Chase. To be respectful we would sometimes refer to him as “Mr. Cat”. And sometimes I amused myself by calling him “Señor Gato”.

Yesterday I got to wondering: Where did Spanish get “gato”, which certainly sounds like “cat”, when the Latin is fēles or fēlis (like in “feline’)? And similarly French has chat.

Well, the real question is, where did Latin get fēles? Because Latin also has cattus, which I think sounds like a joke. You're in Latin class, and you're asked to translate cat, but you haven't done your homework, so what do you say? “Uhhhh… ‘cattus’?”

But cattus is postclassical Latin, replacing the original word fēles no more than about 1500 years ago. The word seems to have wandered all over Europe and Western Asia and maybe North Africa, borrowed from one language into another, and its history is thoroughly mixed up. Nobody is sure where it came from originally, beyond “something Germanic”. The OED description of cat runs to 600 words and shrugs its shoulders.

I learned recently that such words (like brinjal, the eggplant) are called Wanderworts, wandering words.

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