Monday, February 1, 2010

Groundhog Day: “Punxsutawney Phil”

Among the strange new American animals that added so much to the vocabulary of American English, the groundhog does not loom large. The Skunk (1588) and the Opossum (1610) are more colorful, the Buffalo (1633) and the grizzly bear more awe-inspiring. But of all the animals on the continent, only the lowly, unremarkable groundhog has its own day.

The groundhog also has an older, more curious name. Settlers as long ago as 1674 referred to it as a woodchuck, borrowing the name from one of the Algonquian Indian languages but spelling it as a combination of two English words. This attempt to make sense of the borrowing resulted in such nonsense as the tongue twister, "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

Meanwhile, in the middle colonies, the wood-chucking creature acquired another name, groundhog, that goes back at least as far as 1742. In that year the Pennsylvania botanist John Bartram wrote, "The Monac or groundhog...will be as tame as a cat." Groundhog may have been a translation from the Dutch aardvarken, meaning "earth pig," or it may just have been inspired by the observation that this pudgy rodent burrows in the ground. In any case, it was as a groundhog that it got its day, February 2. The ceremony has remained as it was in this 1871 explanation: "On that day the ground-hog comes annually out of his hole, after a long winter nap, to look for his shadow. If he perceives it, he retires again to his burrow, which he does not leave for six weeks--weeks necessarily of stormy weather. But if he does not see his shadow, he stays out of his hole till he can, and the weather is sure to become mild and pleasant." In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, "Punxsutawney Phil" now does the Groundhog Day forecasting for the whole nation.


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