“What is a dormouse, and how did it get its name?”

Last night during storytime, my daughter listened patiently to an entire page of  Under the Harvest Moon by Stella Gurney before interrupting my husband with a question. “What’s a dormouse?”

“That,” my husband said, pointing to a small mouse-like creature on the page.

“Why do they call it that?”

My husband shrugged, and politely asked my daughter for an iPhone exemption (iPhones are not allowed during Storytime—or mealtimes, for that matter), so that he could look up the answer. My daughter naturally agreed.

In asking the iPhone, my husband learned two things:

1)   The illustration in the storybook left out the critical visual distinction between a dormouse and a regular old house mouse. Dormice have furry tails, plain old mice have scaly ones.  (In the illustrator’s defense the furry tail does appear on the Dormouse a few pages later, it just wasn’t shown on the page they were on at the time.)

2)   Dormice are called dormice because they sleep a lot. The little rodents hibernate for six months of the year—longer if the weather stays cold enough—waking only to snatch a bite or two of food from food stores hidden nearby.  Back in the Middle Ages when the dormouse needed naming, someone derived their common name from the Anglo-Norman word dormeus (sleepy one). Or maybe it was from the Latin dormire or French dormir, both of which mean “to sleep”.

And before my little Caterpickle even asks, no, I can’t tell you who gave them their common name (they were kind of bad about keeping records of that stuff in the Middle Ages), but I can distract you with this tidbit. Although 29 kinds of dormice live in Europe, Asia, and Africa, if you are reading about a dormouse in Alice in Wonderland or some other work of English literature, most likely the writer is talking about this little guy, the common dormouse or Hazel dormouse, the only dormouse found in the British Isles.

Side Note:

Did you know that the Romans considered the dormouse to be a tasty treat? I hear they liked it best dipped in honey and poppy seeds. And if you think discovering the origins of the common name for the dormouse is trouble, wait until you try to pin down the scientific name of that honey-dipped beastie. According to The Dormouse Hollow, Carl Linnaeus originally named the edible dormouse Sciurus glis in 1766. Unfortunately, he was under the impression that the dormouse was some sort of squirrel or hamster or maybe a marmot at the time, which cast a bit of doubt on his ability to name it.

What Linnaeus may not have realized is that his contemporary Mathurin-Jacques Brisson had already named the edible dormouse Glis glis in 1762. Of course, Brisson couldn’t be troubled with following proper scientific convention in naming an edible rodent, so the scientific community for a while argued to toss Brisson’s name out as well in favor of the next oldest generic name, Myoxus glis. But that would require renaming the entire family of dormice Myoxidae instead of their current Gliridae, spawning an even greater kerfuffle. Fortunately, the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature has since decided to keep the name Glis glis.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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2 Responses to “What is a dormouse, and how did it get its name?”

  1. Pingback: Have you heard the snoring dormouse? | CATERPICKLES

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Remember the Snoring Dormouse? | CATERPICKLES

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