Monday, 25 May 2009

Cornering the meerkat

I have been noticing a lot of meerkats recently. It’s not that I have taken up residence in the Kalahari Desert, but it has been hard to escape an advertising campaign playing on the similarity between the words meerkat and market that has brought these creatures to Britain’s television screens.

Readers who are acquainted with Dutch will know that the word meerkat literally means ‘lake cat’ (although meer originally referred to the sea, and so the word meant ‘sea cat’). Quite why a meerkat should be called a ‘sea cat’ is a bit of a puzzle – the animal isn’t a cat at all but a member of the mongoose family. And it lives in deserts, not by water.

Some experts think that this is an example of a folk etymology – an unscientific attempt to make sense of an unfamiliar word by associating it with words that are familiar. According to this theory, Dutch travellers may have adopted the Hindi word markat (or a similar word from another Asian language) to mean ‘monkey’, and this word was later assumed incorrectly to be associated with ‘sea’ and ‘cat’. The early occurrence of the word – it had already moved from Dutch into English in the 15th century – makes this theory difficult to substantiate, but not impossible to believe.

So meerkat became a Dutch and also an English word for a monkey, but at this date it still had nothing to do with the desert-dwelling member of the mongoose family. It was not until the start of the 19th century that the word was applied to these curious animals – presumably by someone who hadn’t studied a lot of zoology and thought that any creature with a cute face that stood up on two legs must be some kind of monkey.

So it's only by a chapter of accidents that the word meerkat comes to exist at all, never mind become attached to its current owners. Not that the advertisers who are using meerkats to sell car insurance will be too worried about the word’s strange journey.

Ian Brookes

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