Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

MY husband claims to be learning Spanish, which will come in handy for all his jaunts to the peninsula paid for by drug companies. `Do you know the Spanish for ferret?' he asked yesterday. `It's huron,' he added quickly.

What earthly good that will do him when lost in Madrid I cannot imagine. The burning-eyed little creature (the ferret, not my husband) is not without its merits, though. They tell me that it is nothing but a semi-tame polecat, Putorius foetidus - an olfactorily damning designation, to be sure.

I was delighted to find a proverb about the ferret in the Spanish dictionary by Joseph Baretti (1778), the man who Dr Johnson helped save from the gallows after he stabbed to death a thug in the street. `Andar a caza con huron muerte,' writes Baretti, `To go a coneycatching with a dead ferret; To follow women in old age.' The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs records the literal proverb from the collection of John Ray (who died in 1705) in both English and Spanish, but without Baretti's amusing application of the idea.

The rabbiting use of the ferret is noted in the 7th century by Isidore of Seville, who is also credited with recording the first reference to the ferret in its Late Latin form, furo: `Faro a furuo dictus, unde et fur. …

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