The Word Cat Didn't Always Mean Cat

What sort of philosophers are we who know absolutely nothing about the origin and destiny of cats?
- Henry David Thoreau
The following article was originally contributed by Krister SK Vasshus, who is currently a PhD student at the University of Bergen, Norway. It was originally published on Tulen - Brute Norse's Norwegian language predecessor. Translated and re-adapted for Brute Norse by Eirik Storesund.

When we use the word cat, we tend to think that the word cat is synonymous with felines such as house cats, lions, and tigers. But it wasn't always so. Nobody knows for sure where word cat comes from, but one thing is certain: The word cat does not actually mean cat. This is evident from various compound words in which cat occurs in the Germanic languages. Modern English may tend to be more discriminate about the term, and truly most of us think of the pet variety when we use it in common speech. But there are some revealing exceptions: Pussycat, meerkat, and polecat are all distinctly different animals. Quite a few examples surivive in the Scandinavian languages, and their origins harken back to the Old Norse tongue. The Norwegian røyskatt (stoat), from ON hreysiköttr (literally "cairn cat") is one example, another is apekatt, which means monkey (literally "ape cat"). Swedish retains the ancient Nordic word for hedgehog, igelkott.
So what is the rationale behind all these unrelated critters being called cats? The only logical explanation is that cat means "small mammal", and furry animals in particular.

Stoat (mustela erminea). Photo: Kevin Law / Creative Commons

The European wildcat died out in Scandinavia at some point during Nordic Bronze Age (between 1800 and 500 BCE). But domestic cats were present as far North as Poland by the Pre-Roman Iron Age (500 BCE until the start of the Common Era). They reached Scandinavia not long after. It's presumed that the word cat, in its then Proto-Germanic form *kattuz tagged along with the domestic cat from the Roman, Latin speaking south where it was called cattus/catta. The problem is that the select few Latin sources we have for this word are all from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, hundreds of years after cats made it to Scandinavia.

Judging by its form, the word must have come to the Nordic before the i-umlaut raged through the language, which changed the vowel i place names like Kettinge in Denmark. Likewise, it's not entirely clear whether the Latin sources exclusively refer to the house pet that meows and catches rodents, or if they also applied it to other small animals. At any rate, the similarity between the Latin and Proto-Germanic forms cattus and *kattuz is great enough to assume it is a loanword, despite the late attestation.
Carved pael from the Oseberg cart. Photo: KHM, UiO

Many things indicate that the word had been on a long journey before it arrived in Scadinavia. Nubian 'kadis' and Berber 'kadiska', words both meaning cat, hint to a possible Afro-Asiatic origin. This makes sense, because the cat was most likely first domesticated in Africa or the Middle East, and was originally unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Perhaps the Romans also changed the name of the animal from felis to cattus/catta when they were introduced to the domestic cat. 
When the cat came to Scandinavia we had other words for felines as well. In Norwegian these survive as lo and gaupe - the lynx. We will never know why didn't they use these words to describe the new, tame, miniature version, but it's doubtful that many purists will lose much sleep over it. The new animal brought economical and hygienic benefits, for example to farmers suffering from mice-infested granaries.

But what about all the other Scandinavian animals that have -katt as a suffix? Norwegian røyskatt, Swedish lekatt, and Danish lækatt all denote the same animal; the stoat. Then there is the aforementioned igulköttr, which lives on as the Swedish word for hedgehog - igelkott. Ígull is an old Germanic name for the hedgehog, and le-/læ- may be an ancient word for stoat, while Norwegian røys-, meaning cairn, points to where the animal prefers to live. Some have also speculated that Freyja's cats in reality may have been stoats or weasels. European monkeys are comparably small, and as we know from before, monkeys are called "ape-cats" in Norwegian. Today we distinguish between apes, which are big, and monkeys which are small. What all of these animals have in common is the fact that they are small in size, and that they are mammals. Accordingly, we must assume that cat originally meant "a small mammal". Perhaps the reason why only the purring newcomer got the honor of being named cat without a prefix or suffix, is because they didn't know it by any previous name.

Image courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Further reading:
  • Wahlberg, Mats. (2012) Kattens betydelse för våra ortnamn. I: Leibring, Katharina et al. red. Namn på stort och smått. Uppsala, Institutet för språk och folkminnen, Namnarkivet i Uppsala, s. 301-315.


  1. Heres some more info with facing text translations and historical scholarship.


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