Throwback Thursday: “Did kittens get their name in Britain?”

This week’s Throwback Thursday post was originally published on April 12, 2012, when The Nine-Year-Old was only five.

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

Writer of things ranging from optical network switching white papers to genetic testing patient education materials to historical fiction set in an 1880s asylum. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), my writerly self can be found blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, or musing about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.wordpress.com.
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