Know Your Words

Giving “Raccoon” a Hand

1280px-Racoon_(PSF)
This is a raccoon. It’s coming for your stuff.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the baboons that collaborated on a plan to escape the research facility holding them prisoner, but have you heard about the stoned raccoon? If not, I encourage you to read the story at the link provided. (Go ahead, I’ll wait ….) If  you can’t be bothered, I’ll give you the quick version:

A pet raccoon got into someone’s pot stash. Fearing for its life, the raccoon’s human companion brought it to a nearby fire station for help. Unfortunately, the firefighters could offer none. Their advice was simply to let the animal “sleep it off” (or whatever the raccoon equivalent of that is). End of story? Sort of. The article goes on to say how this sort of thing happens more often these days as marijuana has become more prevalent and, generally, more acceptable.

So, to recap, the firefighters washed their “hands” of the incident, which is interesting because, etymologically speaking, raccoons and hands go … um … hand in hand. Let me explain.

I’m going to assume you know that raccoons are (small mammals, with furry gray bodies, white faces with black circles around their eyes that make them look like they’re wearing a mask, paws that look like tiny hands, etc). I will not assume, however, that you know the history of the word raccoon. Here’s the skinny, according to Eric Partridge’s Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:

Coon, with adjective coony; raccoon or racoon
Coon, the quadruped, hence the fur, merely shortens raccoon; Raccoon is of Algonquin origin; Webster compares Virginian arakun, raccoon, from arakunem, ‘he scratches with his hands’ (feet).

All the references at my disposal seem to agree on this. Even the online ones that I generally don’t care to consult. However, there is one text on the BLRL’s shelves, the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, that contains this little nugget:*

Dr. Johnson said of the clever creature: “The rackoon is a New England animal, like a badger, having a tail like a fox, being clothed in a thick and deep furr: it sleeps in the day time in a hollow tree, and goes out a-nights, when the moon shines, to feed on the sea side, where it is hunted by dogs.”

Maybe. Or maybe raccoons are out at night when the moon shines because they’re looking for your stash. After all, in dreams, raccoons are said to signify criminal activity (you know, because they wear a “mask”). Also, because they dwell in trees, they’re said to symbolize the feeling of being “treed,” or having one’s back up against the wall. (Exactly the kind of feeling that might make you want to chill with some Grandaddy Purple.)

______________________________________
Notes:
I’m aware what the date is and, no, I did not plan to write about this on this smokiest of days.

* The BLRL’s copy of Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection contains this same nugget.

 

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