It’s funny how you can go for months without seeing “squirrel” in print, and then, bam, two sightings within three days.
The first squirrel is a red herring. It appears in Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journal review of Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, a biography by Harriet Hyman Alonso of the man who wrote the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “April in Paris,” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg in New York City in 1896; he changed his name to Edgar Y. Harburg in 1934 but was generally known as E.Y. Harburg or Yip Harburg.
Why “Yip”? In his review, Epstein says the nickname “came from the Yiddish word for squirrel, yipsl, which his parents called him when he was a child.” But the Yiddish word for squirrel is actually the Slavic-derived veverke; no Yiddish dictionary contains yipsl. According to Alonso, who devotes the first chapter of her book to the origin of “Yip,” Harburg related the yipsl-squirrel story to the oral historian Studs Terkel. Alonso passes it along without further comment, as does Epstein.
It’s entirely possible, though, that Harburg was pulling Terkel’s leg – or being squirrelly (“cunningly unforthcoming or reticent”). Because while yipsl has no meaning in Yiddish, the acronym YPSL is both meaningful and relevant: it stands for Young People’s Socialist League, which was founded in 1907 as the student arm of the American Socialist Party and whose members were known as – yep – “Yipsels.” In a 2004 column for The Jewish Daily Forward, the pseudonymous language columnist Philologos wrote that “Harburg was a political radical who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it is possible that he was nicknamed ‘Yipsel,’ subsequently shortened to ‘Yip,’ because of his YPSL-like views even if he never was a YPSL member.” Other distinguished Yipsels or sympathizers included the political scientist Daniel Bell, the literary and social critic Irving Howe, the writer Saul Bellow, and the journalist (and eventual neoconservative) Irving Kristol.
The second squirrel is a semi-secret one.
Secret Squirrel Cold Brew Coffee is a bottled coffee concentrate; one 16-ounce bottle makes six to seven eight-ounce drinks. The company is based in Studio City (Los Angeles County), but according to the clumsily written FAQ the name has a different geographic origin:
Growing up in Washington DC area a secret squirrel was something like knowing a shortcut around traffic, or knowing the hideaway parking spot, or knowing the unknown electrical outlet in the coffee shop. It only seemed fitting for this centuries old method for brewing coffee that few people know about.
(That awkward dangler at the beginning of the paragraph is one good argument for editors. Another is knowing how to hyphenate compound adjectives. Elsewhere on the website, a proofreader would have caught “anyway” for “any way,” sentences that end without periods, and introductory clauses without commas. But I digress.)
I have no idea whether the D.C. story is true – anyone care to confirm? I do know, however, that “Secret Squirrel” was the title character of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that aired for a few seasons in the mid-1960s and was briefly revived in the 1990s. The character was a spy; whether it got its name from the Washington shortcut or vice versa, I cannot say.
Finally, a few squirrel tidbits:
- The Latin word for squirrel, sciurus, translates to “shadow tail.”
- In many Germanic languages the word for “squirrel” translates to “oak kitten.” (It’s Eichhörnchen in German.)
- The Spanish word for “squirrel,” ardilla, translates to “like a flame.” (From arder, to burn.)
- See “squirrel” translated into almost 300 languages, including Klingon, here.
And here’s my favorite cinematic squirrel sighting, or near-sighting:
Dug the Dog, from Up (2009)
A motor vehicle which exhibits a tendency to wander all over the road, requiring constant course corrections, is said to have squirrelly (sometimes with a single L) handling; I don't know if this is a form of visual onomatopoeia -- assuming there is such a thing as visual onomatopoeia -- or an extension of the "cunningly unforthcoming" definition, inasmuch as drivers expect the steering wheel to tell them something about what's happening on the road.
Posted by: CGHill | January 02, 2013 at 08:45 AM
We don't know how to do any of what you suggested, but we make great coffee. Can you fix that paragraph for us? Recommend an editor?
Posted by: Trevor Smith | January 02, 2013 at 08:54 AM
A couple of things in the Harburg story seem questionable to me. One is that Studs Terkel would almost certainly have known the term "Yipsl," so if there was any squirreliness going on it would have been collaborative. But if Harburg's nickname really indicated he'd been affiliated with YPSL, he probably wouldn't have been blacklisted. The blacklist was aimed at people who had been in the Communist Party or groups close to it; YPSL and the Socialist Party were on the worst possible political terms with the CP. ("The right wing cloak makers/And the Socialist fakers/Are making by the workers double crosses.") Maybe he had switched his allegiance from YPSL to the Young Communist League and the nickname was a mocking reference to his early misstep, but it sounds iffy to me.
Posted by: rootlesscosmo | January 02, 2013 at 09:32 AM
There was a very squirrely Language Hat thread here: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003682.php
The story of these words for oak, acorn, and squirrel seems to be full of surprises.
Posted by: empty | January 02, 2013 at 11:09 AM
I have to bring in regional differences in the pronunciation of "squirrel". As a southerner, my pronunciation sounds more like "squirl", while my tri-states husband and our brother-in-law pronounce it more like squir-rel with the accent on the second syllable. And of course, we're both correct.
Posted by: Nancy Daquino | January 02, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Re Hanna-Barbera's Secret Squirrel: hard not to suspect this way some sort of mashup lifted from the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, where Russian spies Boris and Natasha were always saying things like "Get moose and squirrel!" Would have to check the timing of the two shows.
Posted by: Diana Landau | January 05, 2013 at 03:41 PM