How Are Groundhogs Connected to an Endangered Language?

February 2 marks Groundhog Day. While the frost is still thick on the ground in some places of the country, we want to explore the unusual origin of the common name for the herbivorous burrower Marmota monax. Where does the term groundhog come from?

Groundhogs are not at all related to hogs, so their compound name is only partially accurate: they indeed live close to the ground. The other common name for the marmots is equally confusing. Woodchucks do not chuck or throw around wood, despite the popular tongue twister that queries how much they would if they could. As burrowing rodents, they don’t have much to do with wood or trees at all. In fact, the name woodchuck is an anglicized loanword from the Algonquian word wuchak.

Pause here for a moment. That language of origin is Algonquian, a now extremely endangered language spoken across North America before the arrival of Europeans. Algonquian dialects dominated in the north and east parts of North America but were also used as far away as the Rockies. Tribes that spoke dialects of Algonquian include the Blackfoot and Cheyenne, Ojibwa and Potawatomi, Fox, Shawnee, Massachusett, Mohican, Powhatan, and Shinnecock. Besides the humble woodchuck, English derives several other words from Algonquian languages. Native flora and fauna dominate the list, which includes chipmunk, caribou, hickory, squash, hominy, moose, opossum, and raccoon.

Regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow this year, stay warm, eat some chicken soup, and try to keep alive the rich heritage of American English.