MAMMAL NAMES | Felids, Hounds & Vixens:

The Interesting Names of Ireland’s Cats, Dogs, and Foxes

One of the Irish names for the red fox is madra rua, meaning 'red dog'

By this stage in our exploration of the names of Ireland’s mammals we have been all over the island and its seas, meeting wildly different forms, some of which, such as the bats or the whales, may not have been particularly well known to us, at the outset at least. However, this month we will investigate the names of what are undoubtedly the most familiar mammals in Irish lands – the domestic cats and dogs, as well as the dogs’ lesser known wild relative, the red fox. But as familiar as Ireland’s dogs and cats are, as we delve into the origins of their names we may find ourselves discovering connections between mammals, languages, times, and places that we couldn’t have guessed at.

We can begin, though, on more familiar ground. When it comes to the scientific names of the cats, dogs, and foxes in Ireland, it should be unsurprising at this point in our investigation of Irish mammals’ names to find that they derive from one of the greatest languages of the ancient world – Latin. Thus, the genus names for the cat, dog, and fox in Ireland are simply the Latin terms for these mammals, being, respectively, felis, canis, and vulpes.

It is from the Latin felis and canis that we also derive the names for the wider groups that cats and dogs belong to. Thus, Felidae is the name of the cat family, which includes large forms such as the lion, tiger, leopard, and cheetah, and smaller forms such as the lynx, ocelot, wildcat, and Ireland’s housecats, while Canidae is the name of the dog family, including Ireland’s dogs and red foxes, as well as the wolves, African hunting dog, maned wolf of South America, and many, many more.

The family name of Ireland's cats comes from the Latin for 'cat', felis. (Detail from a Roman mosaic in Santa Maria Capua Vetere in southern Italy)

Furthermore, the order Carnivora to which the cats and dogs belong is divided into the feliforms and caniforms, the former including, as you would expect, cat-like forms such as the civets and mongooses, as well as the fossa of Madagascar, but also hyenas, who are so dog-like they were in the past actually placed in the dog family. In turn, the caniforms include forms that are not too hard to envisage as being on the dogs’ side of the divide, such as the bears and badgers, as well as those water-dwellers the seals and otters (indeed, the Irish names for the latter, as we have seen previously, translate as ‘water dog’ or ‘river hound’). However, the caniforms also include mammals that seem far more cat-like than dog-like in form, such as the red panda of Asia or Ireland’s pine marten, the former’s scientific name Ailurus fulgens even meaning ‘shining cat’, while the latter’s Irish name, as we also saw previously, means ‘cat of the trees’.

Of course, amongst the relatives they can count on their side of the divide in the order Carnivora are those forms which are most closely related to Ireland’s cats and dogs – the wild mammals of which they are the domesticated versions. However, because of differing opinions as regards the evolutionary relationship between wild and domesticated forms, the full scientific names of Ireland’s cats and dogs can be different depending on who you ask.

So, although it is generally agreed that the domestic cat is descended from the African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica (AKA Felis lybica lybica), some see it as just a subspecies of this wildcat, and so Felis silvestris catus, whereas others regard it as a species in its own right, Felis catus. Similarly, although all agree that the wolf, Canis lupus (lupus means ‘wolf’ in Latin), is the progenitor of the domesticated dog, some see the dog as only a subspecies of the wolf, making it Canis lupus familiaris, whereas others upgrade it to full species status and so refer to it as Canis familiaris. In fact, recently, for both cats and dogs, the latter view has become more prevalent, and many now regard them as full species.

Depending on whether Ireland's dogs are viewed as a subspecies of the wolf (above) or a full species in their own right, their scientific name is either Canis lupus familiaris or Canis familiaris

If I was writing this post two-and-a-half centuries ago, I would, of course, be including the wolf, that closest wild relative of the dog, in my exploration of mammal names. However, sadly, this greatest living member of the dog family is to be found on the island no more, its last reported sighting having been in 1786. Today, then, the dog has only one relative living in the wild in Ireland, the red fox, which is far more distantly related, its tribe Vulpini having diverged from that of the dog, Canini, around 11 million years ago when both groups had yet to leave the dog family’s great evolutionary homeland of North America.

In any case, as a wild form, we do not encounter any of the taxonomic wranglings as regards the red fox’s full scientific name as we do with the dog. In fact, it could not be simpler, being Vulpes vulpes, the ‘foxy fox’. And though the red fox is only quite distantly related to Ireland’s dogs, the resemblance between them is still very clear to see, so it is no wonder that one of its Irish names is madra rua – the ‘red dog’ (the roots of its other Irish name, sionnach, are unknown).

Like the English name, then, this Irish name refers to the red colour of this fox, but, in a similar way to what we saw with the island’s squirrels and rats, or its deer, this name does not fully encompass the colour of this mammal. Although the fur is indeed usually a reddish or yellowish brown, it can also sometimes be verging on black or grey. Furthermore, when it comes to newborn red foxes, they are far from red, ranging from chocolate brown to black, and even the eyes lack the red coloration of the adults, being not amber but blue. Only when they have reached about a month old do the coats and eyes of the young begin to assume the distinctive adult colouring.

Although one of the Irish names for the red fox refers, as does its English name, to the red colour of this mammal, being madra rua ('red dog'), the young can have a far different coloration

But yet another distinctive feature of the red fox is its tail, which is big and bushy and can account for about two fifths of this mammal’s length. And it is, in fact, from the tail that the word ‘fox’ is derived; the Old English fox coming from the Proto-Germanic word for ‘fox’, fuhsaz, itself deriving from fuh- which comes from the Proto-Indo-European puk-, meaning ‘tail’ (which is also the source of the Sanskrit word for ‘tail’, puccha).

And though the word for a female fox, ‘vixen’, may seem to be quite different to the word ‘fox’ in its form, the relation between the two becomes far more obvious when we explore its origins too. Unlike ‘fox’, which is the same in modern English as it was in Old English, ‘vixen’ is the evolved form of the Old English fyxen. Indeed, the word ‘vixen’ holds a special place in the modern English language as it is the only surviving word to incorporate the Germanic feminine suffix –en, which was far more common in Old English, as seen in wlyfen, meaning ‘she-wolf’, gyden, meaning ‘goddess’, or mynecen, meaning ‘nun’ (from the word munuc, meaning ‘monk’). As for the shift from an ‘f’ to a ‘v’ spelling, this began in the late 1500s.

The female of Ireland’s red fox, then, bears a different name to the female of the domestic dog, who is known as a bitch. However, the word ‘bitch’ too comes from Old English, in this case from bicce, meaning ‘female dog’, which itself may derive from the Old Norse bikkjuna, a term usually meaning ‘female of the dog’ but also sometimes used for the females of foxes, wolves, or even other animals. The deeper origins of this word are unknown, and though it has been suggested it comes from the Lapp word pittja, this latter word could just as easily be derived from the Old Norse one rather than the other way round.

Not only the females of domestic dogs differ in name to their red fox counterparts, though, as the names of red fox young too can be different. Although they are, like their domestic relatives, sometimes referred to as pups, unlike them they are also sometimes called cubs, or even kits. When it comes to the males, though, there is no such divide, both being called dogs.

However, one of the strange things about that most familiar of words, ‘dog’, is that its origins are quite obscure. Although it is known to derive from the Old English docga, and in one Middle English source it is used to refer to a powerful breed of dog, its deeper roots are unknown, leading some to exclaim that its ‘origins are one of the great mysteries of English etymology’.

The same thing cannot be said of the Old English word that ‘dog’ superseded, though, hund, which still survives in the word ‘hound’, and, indeed, tracing this word back to its origins reveals a connection between the alternative English and Irish names for ‘dog’ as well as the scientific name. This is because hund can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root kwon-, meaning ‘dog’, from which are also derived the Latin canis as well as the Irish meaning ‘dog’ or ‘hound’, a word most familiar as part of the name of one of the greatest heroes in Irish mythology, Cúchulainn, the ‘hound of Culann’.

The English word 'hound' comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as does the Irish word cú, meaning 'dog' or 'hound', most familiar perhaps in the name of that great hero of Irish mythology Cúchulainn (the 'hound of Culann')

But not only English and Irish words for dog can be traced to the same root, as the same can be said of the English word ‘cat’ and the Irish cat, although the ultimate root of these words is thought not to lie in the Indo-European language group, but in another great language family. ‘Cat’ and cat both derive from the Late Latin word for ‘cat’, cattus, which replaced the older Latin term felis. However, the deeper origins of cattus are thought to likely lie in the Afro-Asiatic language family, and the similarity of this word to the Nubian word for ‘cat’, kadis, or the Berber one, kadiska, is obvious.

This should be no great surprise to us, though, considering we’re already aware that the domestic cat is descended from the African wildcat, which hails from North Africa and the Near East. It was in the Near East around 9,000 years ago that the African wildcat took its first steps towards domestication, feeding on the rodents attracted by farmers’ stockpiles of grain. Around 6,000 years ago, then, migrating farmers from the Near East were the first to introduce domesticated cats to Europe, while a second wave later arrived from Egypt. Eventually, they made their way to Ireland too where they continue to thrive due to their symbiotic relationships with humans.

Indeed, the closeness of humans to their domesticated cats and dogs has resulted not only in these mammals being conferred with names by humans, but by humans then using these names to describe one another, with females often coming off worse than men.

Take ‘dog’, for example. By 1200 AD, this could be used towards a person in a contemptuous way, meaning a ‘mean, worthless fellow, currish, sneaking scoundrel’. However, while in the 1610s ‘dog’ was used more playfully to refer to males, especially if they were young, as a ‘rakish man’ or a ‘sport’ or ‘gallant’, by the 1930s it had come to be used in a very cruel way towards females, meaning ‘ugly woman’. The sexual connotations of the word continue from there, in the 1950s meaning ‘sexually aggressive man’, while more recently anyone who has ever had even a mild brush with rap or hip-hop will be fully aware that men come off much better with the term 'dog' than women do with 'bitch'.

A similar thing is seen with the word 'cat'. Although in African-American slang in the 1920s 'cat' was used in a friendly way in the sense of 'fellow' or 'guy', and the narrower use to mean 'jazz enthusiast' is known to have appeared by 1931, the use of the word to refer to women has far deeper and darker roots. As long ago as the early thirteenth century it was used as a term of abuse towards a woman, and by 1400 AD it was being used as a slang word for 'prostitute'.

There is something of a dark side to the names of Ireland's cats and dogs, then, at least when it comes to how we use them against one another. However, the true dark side of Ireland's cats and dogs is far more troubling. Although most pet owners on the island today love their cats and dogs and this is how it should be, at the same time it cannot be ignored that these pets are part of a remorseless process that is utterly changing our world. Together, us humans and our domesticated mammals make up a staggering 96 per cent of the mammal life on Earth, with all wild mammals accounting for just a paltry 4 per cent. At the rate we are going, it might not be long before someone writing about the names of Ireland's felids and canids will cover those of the domesticated cats and dogs alone, the red fox having followed its wild relative the wolf into the oblivion of extinction on the island.


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