Sunday, October 21, 2007



A book I used to read aloud to my children was Gladys Baker Bond, Two Stories About Chap and Chirpy (Racine: Whitman, 1965). Chap and Chirpy were the names of two cute chipmunks.

The Big Woods once extended over more than three thousand square miles of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana. A few patches remain, and one of them is the subject of a chapter in Paul Gruchow, Worlds within a World: Reflections on Visits to Minnesota Scientific and Natural Area Preserves (St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1999), who reports:
A flurry of motion about thirty yards down the slope caught my eye. I looked and saw an eastern chipmunk perched on the upturned roots of a fallen tree. I suppose that there is not a more beguiling denizen of these woods. A chipmunk is quintessentially cute — pert, petite, bright-eyed, and curious, a Walt Disney creature if ever there was one.

Then I saw that the chipmunk was chewing on something as long and lithe as a length of rope. I raised my binoculars for a closer view and was astonished to see that the little animal was eating a garter snake more than a foot long and as big around as my index finger.


When I got home, I looked up eastern chipmunks in Evan B. Hazard's The Mammals of Minnesota....Hazard adds, "Chipmunks are a source of much enjoyment, though people often have an unrealistically benign image of the personalities of these aggressive, often antisocial rodents."

There it was, another illusion shattered.

When I thought about it, I realized that that is one of the reasons I find myself mesmerized by the natural world. Whenever you are tempted to make something treacly of it, nature conspires to show you its tart reality. Nature is not, as it is so often represented, an escape from anything, but a bracing call to realism.

So I was not surprised, when I looked treacle up in the dictionary, to find where the word came from. It once referred not to something cloyingly sweet, as it does now, but to an antidote to poisonous bites. It was derived from an ancient Greek word meaning "wild animal," the same root that gave us the word fierce.

Fierce, for example, as a chipmunk.
I was surprised to learn about the etymology of treacle and its connection with fierce, but Gruchow is correct according to the American Heritage Dictionary, which derives treacle from
Middle English triacle, antidote for poison, from Old French, from Latin thēriaca, from Greek (antidotos) thēriakē, from thērion, poisonous beast, diminutive of thēr, beast. See ghwer- in Appendix.
and fierce from
Middle English F(i)ers, from Old French, from Latin ferus, wild. See ghwer- in Appendix.
The Appendix is Calvert Watkins' Indo-European Roots, which has the following entry for ghwer-:
Wild beast. 1. Suffixed form *ghwer-o- in Latin ferus, wild: FERAL, FIERCE. 2. Compound *ghwer-okw-, "of wild aspect" (*-okw-, "-looking"; see okw-), in Latin ferōx (stem ferōc-), fierce: FEROCIOUS. 3. Lengthened-grade form *ghēwr- in Greek thēr, wild beast: -THERE, THEROPOD, TREACLE.
Cute, by the way, was originally acute ("sharp, shrewd, clever"), related to Latin acus ("needle") and acerbus ("bitter, sharp, tart").

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