While the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill are in full swing, here in Alaska, we’re all wondering where the heck winter is.
Temperatures are above normal, very little sea ice is forming and there’s equally little snow for our forest friends to make their dens. (Our Fairbanks friends might be the exception so far.)
Even wolverines and lynxes are moving into urban areas because they are just as confused as the humans are.
The word “wolverine” has an uncertain history. We first see it written in the 1610s, and guess that it probably stems from the base word “wolf.” There was a word in the 16th century that we don’t really use anymore — “wolver” — that might be connected. “Wolver” means to behave like a wolf; so whoever coined the word “wolverine” for these creatures appeared to feel pretty lazy that day. “Well, it doesn’t really look like a wolf, but it sure acts like a wolf, so we shall call it wolverine.”
“Lynx,” however, has a much more regal history. It comes from the Latin word “lynx,” which was borrowed from the Greek “lyngx.” You can still see that original Greek spelling today in some Slavic and Germanic languages.
The Proto-Indo-European root is proposed by many linguists to be “leuk,” meaning light or brightness. You can see that root in other light-related words such as “lucent,” “lunar,” and even “Lucifer,” whose name literally means “morning star.” But the light in “lynx” is a reference to the lynx’s gleaming eyes and ability to see in the dark.
Other word historians disagree, thinking that connection is a bit of a stretch, and think that the word comes from outside the Indo-European family.
The root “leuk,” though, has been on the minds of many Kodiakans these past couple of weeks. For readers of this column who live off-island, our community was struck with news that two of our young people have been diagnosed with leukemia, and several organizations have come together to assist with easing the financial burden through some creative fundraising.
And you may be wondering what in the world the root “leuk,” which means light and brightness, has to do with leukemia, which brings such dark times on a family and community.
The term “leukemia” joined English in 1851, but was coined in 1847 by a German doctor, Rudolf Virchow. Virchow studied the blood disease, which is characterized the rapid growth of leucocytes, also known as white blood cells.
The base word comes from the Greek “leukos,” meaning clear and white, so you can see the connection to the PIE root meaning light and bright.
The second part of the word, “-emia,” comes from the Greek word “haima,” meaning blood. In medical terminology, though, that root is used to refer to the condition of blood. We’re not too sure where “haima” comes from, but some speculate it derives from the PIE root “sai,” meaning thick liquid.
“Blood” in English comes from an Old English word “blod,” from the Proto-Germanic “blodam.” Here, like with “haima,” the trail goes a bit cold. Some historians think that “blodam” is rooted in the PIE “bhlo-to,” which could mean to swell up, gush or spurt. You can compare this to the word “bloom,” which likewise bursts out from a flower. In fact, the old Gothic “bloma” means flower.
So the English word for “blood” is less about what it is and more about what it does. If we look further at the PIE root “bhlo-to,” a form of that root, “bhel,” literally means to thrive. Bloom.
This feature of English and Germanic languages — that the word for “blood” doesn’t quite mean what it actually is — is very interesting. There was a deliberate avoidance in the development of ancient Germanic languages to use other PIE words that mean “blood.”
For instance, the root “esen,” which is also used by Greeks and in Sanskrit, and “krew,” which specifically means blood from a wound, is seen in Latin and Greek, and later in Balto-Slavic language groups.
By the middle of the 13th century, “blood” developed a few figurative meanings. “Blood” as the seat of one’s passions or disposition and “blood” as family or kin relationships, which is how the Greeks also used the root “haima.”
Let’s come back to wolverines. Biologically, wolverines belong to the weasel family, so aren’t very close kins to wolves. But, their disposition is wolflike, so in that sense, I guess they do have the blood of wolves. It’s as if the wolverine animal has its very own spirit animal.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at email@example.com.