Groundhog etymology: from whistle pigs to woodchucks
On 2 February, we celebrate the Pennsylvania German custom of groundhog divination, which dates back to the 18th century and the European weather lore of Candlemas. According to folklore, on a sunny day, the groundhog will see its shadow and head back in its burrow, signaling six more weeks of more winter. If the weather is cloudy and the groundhog does not see its shadow, then lore tells us that spring will come early. As Punxsutawney Phil and other rodent prognosticators make their shadowy predictions, it’s a good time for linguists to sit by a warm fire and reflect on the word groundhog.
One of the first-known uses of the word groundhog is from 1784, a reference to animals such as ‘foxes, ground-hogs, pole-cats, and oppossums.’ By the 1840s, the groundhog was the center of attention at annual Pennsylvania celebrations and the usage was captured by Maximillian Schele de Vere in his 1871 book on Americanisms: The English of the New World: ‘Candlemas is known as Ground-hog Day, for on that day the ground-hog comes annually out of his hole, after a long winter nap, to look for his shadow.’
The etymology of ground-hog (as the word first appears) is fairly transparent—it’s a kind of ‘earth pig’, and in fact at about the same time, Dutch colonists in South Africa were naming the aard-vark, which is Dutch for another type of ‘earth pig’. As with pole-cats, wild cats, hedgehogs, mountain lions, and even fire flies, on occasion we name animals and insects based on real or imagined similarities to other creatures. Other names for groundhog have included whistle pig (for its characteristic alarm call) and land beaver (as opposed to the aquatic beaver).
Then there is the woodchuck, yet another name for the groundhog, still in use in British English. Woodchuck is found in print as early as 1674, as an alteration of the Algonquian words otchock or wejak. Woodchuck arose from as a folk etymology influenced by the phonetic similarity of the first syllable to wood to suggest an origin that isn’t.
Woodchuck often misleads the more fanciful among us into wondering, ‘How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?’, a wonderfully tongue-twisting question made famous in the 1902 “Woodchuck Song”. Fortunately, the folks in 18th-century Pennsylvania called the prognosticating rodent a groundhog. Otherwise we might be waiting to hear the word from the Punxsutawney woodchuck, whistlepig, or land beaver. It wouldn’t be the same.