pole cat

David M. Robertson dmsnake at USIT.NET
Fri Mar 16 03:15:03 UTC 2001

Lesa Dill wrote:

> My sociolinguistics class and I went off on a tangent
> the other night and walked through the world of "pole
> cat."  Some of the students were wondering what the
> origin of that skunk name was.  Someone thought it
> might involve a racial or ethnic slur??  Anyone know?
> Is the term still in widespread use?
> Deep in the land of possums and pole cats--
> Lesa

I believe the skunk is called "polecat" primarily because of the
tendency of early European settlers in the "new world" to name
unfamiliar plants and animals for those which were similar (but not
identical) in the "old world." Other examples of this are robin,
buzzard, bison (I think), cedar and sycamore.

As someone has said, the old world polecat (derived from poule-chat
because it was a somehat catlike animal that killed chickens) was a
ferret/weasel-like creature. It had an unpleasant body odor, but did not
spray scent like the new world skunk.


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