Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Etymologies I love: vixen

Vixen has a truly great etymology. First of all, everybody already knows that a vixen is a female fox, right? So, calling a girl a fox is not only hilariously weird, but it's grammatically inappropriate as well. Call her a vixen, please. She'll appreciate it as she's filling out the sexual harassment report with HR.

Anyway, the word "vixen" actually comes directly from the word "fox." Since the male of the species is called a fox, the female took the diminuative -en and was called a foxen (which sounds better than fox-bitch, another name used). That became fyxen, then vyxen (a great name for a hair band), and then vixen.

Why the spelling and pronunciation of foxen changed while fox didn't is one of those mysteries of etymology that somebody certainly has an educated theory about, but which I don't know. I'm going to blame French, though. Always blame French -- the word "kitten" underwent a very similar transformation, but that was was via French. Chat (As in French for "cat") took a diminuative to become chaton, which entered middle English as kitoun, which is really weird because middle English used the word catte. You'd think somebody would have come up with catten before resorting to French, but these are probably courtesans we're talking about here, so maybe they were just trying to be cool.

Anyway, I forgot what I was saying. Vixen. Good word.

UPDATE: No less an authority than theological ethicist elcaballo has weighed in on the question of phonemic shift in the word "vixen." He attributes the change to fungibility between the voiceless and voiced affricatives /f/ and /v/. Well, elcaballo, I agree that such changes are common in English, however -- like Pelagius' christology -- my question was a bit subtler than you think.

I was actually asking why foxen had changed and fox had not. More specifically, what I was getting at is how fox seems to have survived the Great Vowel Shift that affected almost every Middle English word. Usually, orthographic or phonemic analogy ensures that related words remain relatively close in spelling and pronunciation, but my guess is that fox was a common enough word that it escaped the shift through consistent usage. Foxen, however, remained a word limited to the argot of hunters and early naturalists. It would have been used more rarely, and thus subject to the vowel shift. Perhaps the voiceless /v/ simply worked better with the post-vowel-shift Early Modern /u/ (using the principle of least effort), just as the voiced /f/ worked with the Middle English /ō/.

In summary, Mr. elcaballo -- if, as Thomas Carlyle stated, language is the flesh-garment of thought, you are the Buffalo Bill of linguistics.


  1. AH STOP IT!! first i can't trust questionable content links and now i can't trust you!

  2. creepiest photo so far...

  3. You articulate both the "f" and "the "v" with your teeth on your bottom lip (these are called "labio-dentals" in phonetics). Similar points of articulation mean the letters tend to switch around some in the history of a word. Same with "v" and "b" (this case switching between a labio-dental and bilabial).

    Man, if I had realized in college how sexual phonetic terms sound, my phonetics class would have been a lot more fun.

  4. Point taken; my theory only accounts for the initial consonant and here you must account for the vowel change first.

    Your reasoning, however, is lacking. The preservation of "foxen" in a specialist vocabulary would seem to imply conservation and so linguistic conservatism. We would also have to distinguish between the conserving efforts of naturalists, who would likely tend towards the most radical conservatism, and hunters, who might allow their colloquial usage to undergo more general shifts.

    And for the record, I was publicly cleared of any misinterpretation of Pelagian Christology by no less an authority than an Augustine scholar.

  5. i suspect there's a man beneath that foxen suit.