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Hello,

This week’s words are varmints and vermin. I can’t say the word varmint without imagining a grizzled Wild West prospector, possibly missing a tooth, or two. I was curious, is varmint an uniquely American word for describing both animal pests and rascals of the two-legged variety?

Too friendly a mouse to be vermin

Sadly the pronunciation of varmint (available here) is not provided by that curmudgeonly character and varmint pre-dates the American frontier. It comes from Middle English, was used as early as 1539, and is a variant of vermin with what’s called a “parasitic t”. I don’t relish the notion of letters attaching themselves like leeches to other words, although it would explain the spelling of pneumonia.

Despite its source in Middle English varmint is now listed in both Oxford and Collins dictionaries as being informal North American slang. Its use for animal pests came first. The secondary meaning of a troublesome person arrived in the 1700s.

Rats made of shells in the French Vendee region

Vermin’s use for such trouble-makers has earlier roots. By the 1560s if you referred to the farmer next door as vermin, everybody would have understood. This isn’t surprising as vermin is the older word. The Latin for worm is vermis. This became the collective noun verminum in vulgar Latin and referred to all sorts of pests – insects and possibly reptiles included. Old French seized on it as vermin and referred to difficult creatures such as moths. worms, and mites. By 1300 the Normans had brought it with them to England in Anglo-French. Every language, it seems, requires a term for varmints.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling, hopefully without varmints,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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