Wednesday Word Tangle: A Shaggy cat story

Caterpillar on a leaf

Image: Pixabay

Oh, it’s that time of year again.

The sun has been kind to us (I’m writing this at the end of March, so if the weather has been a bitch for the whole of April, I do apologise) and I’ve already been out into my second home – the garden – a few times, pulling up the inexhaustible wild onions that smother everything that grows, shovelling the cat poo from the flower beds, raking the soil back in place where the little b******s have scratched to cover up their dirty leavings …

All of this can only mean a new season has begun and in my opinion it’s the best – Spring.

Of course, this means setting forth and waging war – cats are a major enemy around here (the joys of city living) matched only by slugs, over which my loathing knows no bounds.

I could write essays about their fecundity, their massive appetites, their need to devour every gorgeous green and leafy lovely I plant in the garden, whilst turning their slimy noses up at the onions, dandelions and bindwind. They are the epicures of the invertebrate world, it seems. 

They’re mucus coated little gits which I am willing to massacre (in an environmentally friendly manner) in their thousands and I don’t care who knows about my molloscular homicide either.

I have more of a dilemma over the furry wrigglers who are the subject of today’s W4W.


I was musing over the word, wondering where on earth it sprung from when the Online Etymology Dictionary saved my blushes once more.

According to this worthy tome, the word comes by way of the Old English piller, meaning plunderer and the Old North French word caterpilose which literally means shaggy cat, making them plundering shaggy cats which, if you’ve ever attempted to grow brassicas without surrounding them in layers of fleecy protection, pretty much sums them up.

What they’re called in other languages is equally fascinating.

In France they’re called chenille, or little dog. A Swiss German name for them is the rather darker teufelskatzdevil’s cat. In Portugal they’re called lagarta, or lizard. And even in our own Kent they had the nickname hop-dog or hop-cat, probably not because they have a special breed of caterpillar that use pogo sticks as a form of locomotion, but because the county was known for its breweries and hop plantations and the caterpillars probably love the taste just as much as many humans do.

So next time you see a woolly bear, an inch worm or a saddleback, just remember how they’ve inspired people to creative word mongery.


With many heartfelt thanks to Kat for starting W4W.