Creatures With Character

May, 2019 Word Stories

Although we humans are quite different from our fellow inhabitants of Earth, we can’t help but see a little bit of ourselves in them. Just look at how often we liken our own physical characteristics or personality traits to those of other creatures, or consider the number of animal-inspired words and expressions used to describe people. The three subjects of this month’s Word Stories are some of the greatest sources of such inspiration, although, as we will see, their reputations are not always deserved.


Lemming is a relatively recent borrowing in English from the Norwegian language. The modern Norwegian word for the lemming is lemen (definite singular form lemenet), but a number of historical spellings are also attested: lemming, lemende, limende, læmende, lömende, lemelde, etc. The origin of the word, as well as its cognates in other Scandinavian languages, has been identified as either Old Norse lómundr or lǽmingr, both denoting the same small rodent. Further etymological investigations offer different hypotheses, listed below in order of decreasing plausibility:

  • An etymon akin to luomek “lemming”, from a Western Sami language such as Lule Sami (belonging to the Uralic rather than the Indo-European family)
  • An unknown Proto-Germanic etymon meaning “barker” (referring to the animal’s call—actually more like a squeak), cognate with Latin and Old Slavic verbs meaning “to bark”
  • The Scandinavian root lemja, meaning “to beat or strike, to be destructive”