11 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 27

Mind your language

MY husband claims to be learning Spanish, which will come in handy for all his jaunts to the peninsula paid for by drug companies. 'Do you know the Spanish for ferret?' he asked yesterday. `It's huron,' he added quickly.

What earthly good that will do him when lost in Madrid I cannot imagine. The burning-eyed little creature (the ferret, not my husband) is not without its merits, though. They tell me that it is nothing but a semi-tame polecat, Puto- rius foetidus — an olfactorily damning designation, to be sure.

I was delighted to find a proverb about the ferret in the Spanish dictio- nary by Joseph Baretti (1778), the man who Dr Johnson helped save from the gallows after he stabbed to death a thug in the street. Andar a caza con huron muerte,' writes Baretti, `To go a coney- catching with a dead ferret; To follow women in old age.' The Oxford Dictio- nary of English Proverbs records the lit- eral proverb from the collection of John Ray (who died in 1705) in both English and Spanish, but without Baret- ti's amusing application of the idea.

The rabbiting use of the ferret is noted in the 7th century by Isidore of Seville, who is also credited with recording the first reference to the fer- ret in its Late Latin form, furo: Tura a furuo dictus, unde et fur. Tenebros enim, et occultos cuniculos effodit, et elicit praedam, quam invenerit.' In his day, the rabbit (cuniculus) was as yet unknown in Britain. The Latin word fur `a thief is credited by Isidore as the ori- gin of faro, 'a ferret', and this etymolo- gy seems to be right. The early form of the word in Spanish was furon, the T changing later to 'h' in the regular way.

In English, ferret, or rather fyrette, is first recorded at the end of the 14th cen- tury in a translation by John de Trevisa of some encyclopaedic work: 'A fyrette hyghte Migale and is a lytyll beest as it were a weasel.' Indeed, the rare word migale comes through Latin from the Greek word meaning 'mouse-weasel'. And the form fyrette exhibits the French diminutive -ette on the stem fyr, deriving, as we have seen, from the Latin fir.

By the time I had rummaged all this together, my husband was ready to rise from his labours, exclaiming on his way to the drinks table, 'Guess what the Spanish is for caterpillar!'

Dot Wordsworth