“Did kittens get their name in Britain?”

Sometime last year, The Five-Year-Old discovered the highly informative children’s book series “The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That.” The books relay all kinds of fun facts about the natural world in a Seussian rhyme scheme. The lively presentation has convinced The Five-Year-Old that words that rhyme have some special connection, if only she can find it.

This hypothesis has made for a fun project. The past few weeks have been filled with all sorts of marvelously poetic discoveries, such as the fact that “worms squirm”, “mice get lice,” and my personal favorite, “old cats sleep on furry mats!”

Recently, The Five-Year-Old realized that kitten rhymes with Britain. So it was only natural for her to wonder, “Mommyo, did kittens get their name in Britain?”

After consulting our copy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, I told The Five-Year-Old that the word kitten comes from the Latin cattus.

The Five-Year-Old, laughing: “Cattus? That’s silly.”

Anyway, a very long time ago, the French…

The Five-Year-Old: “How long ago, Mommyo?”

Sometime before the Middle Ages…

The Five-Year-Old: “What’s that?”

At least 600 years ago, the French took the Latin word for cat (cattus) and turned it into the French word for cat (chat).

The Five-Year-Old, patiently: “I’m talking about kittens, Mommyo.”

And because kittens are small cats, the French made a small word, kiton, to talk about them.

The Five-Year-Old, dubiously: “That word’s bigger.”

So I explained that when I said small word, I meant a nickname.

The Five-Year-Old, reasonably: “Can you just say nickname all the time?”

OK. So anyway, the folks who lived in Britain in the Middle Ages — 600 years ago — heard the French word kiton, and liked it enough to start using it themselves. At first, the British said kitoun….

The Five-Year-Old, giggly: “Why?”

I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t hear it right the first time. Or maybe, like me, their French accent is terrible. Regardless, by the 14th century the Middle English word kitoun became our word kitten.

The Five-Year-Old, suspiciously: “Does Daddyo know this?”

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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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5 Responses to “Did kittens get their name in Britain?”

  1. That is so interesting. I didn’t know that the word ‘kitten’ had that much of a progression. Did you know that the word ‘Mush’ , for sleddogs, comes from the French word ‘marcher’? The English thought that the French were saying ‘mush’, whereas they were saying ‘marche’. (my bit of trivia for the day)

    Like

    • Shala Howell says:

      I didn’t know that. How fun. One of the things I’m enjoying about my daughter’s rhyming / linguistics phase is the fact that her questions prompt me to explore words I take for granted. I tend to reserve my excitement for new to me words like prestidigitation, but it turns out that everyday words can be pretty interesting too.

      Like

  2. jkstamy08 says:

    You do good to get all that down!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: “Did kittens get their name in Britain?” | CATERPICKLES

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