Isn’t it frustrating how many things the English word “bat” means? Seriously, what is the origin of the word bat if it can be so many different things? We bat our eyelashes while flirting. We swing a wooden bat at a ball. Our cats bat around a dead mouse. Eccentric people are batty. It’s so embarrassing when us goths express our love for bats, and the general public wonders how we’re so into sports when we look like we never go outside?
Origin of the word “bat”
Etymonline.com cites several possible origins for the English word as it stands today. Bat comes from Middle English bakke, which likely comes from the Old Norse leðrblaka, meaning “leather flapper.” Somehow, bakke melded with Latin blatta (referring to a moth or other nocturnal insect) to become “bat”. Interestingly, the Old English word for the animal was hreremus, meaning “rattle-mouse”. Middle English ruins everything.
Way to take multiple adorable concepts and distill them down to something super boring and generic, modern English. It seems other world languages have held onto some of these original word associations, but in a much more obvious manner. So, just for fun, we are going to learn how to say “bat” in several languages where the modern word is much cuter than it is in English.
As a biology nut (you could say I’m batty for bio), I have to start with Greek. Bats are in the order Chiroptera, which means “hand-wing” in Greek. I am therefore surprised to inform you that that is not the modern Greek word for “bat”. Rather, “bat” in Greek is νυχτερίδα (nychterída). From nýchta, “night” and erídas, “dispute”. I’m just messing with you about the dipute part. I’m pretty sure terida has something to do with ptera, or “wing”, but I’m not sure. Any thoughts, Greek-speakers?
Morcego, from the Old Portuguese mur (mouse) + cego (blind). Blind mouse makes sense, as bats rely on echolocation since they mostly see infrared light. Plus, they do kind of look like a frightened farmer’s wife cut their tails off. This is the origin of the Spanish murciélago, which I’d always thought had something to do with bats swooping low over a lake (lago) to sip water and catch insects (I’m too much of a romantic for Romance languages, I guess?).
Fledermaus. “Fleder” is from an old form of the German word “flattern” which means “flutter”. Literally, flutter-mouse! C’mon, how can you not say “awwwwww”?
летучая мышь (letuchaya mysh’), which means “volatile mouse”. We’re seeing a trend on the mouse theme. I’ve had both a bat and a mouse in my house in recent memory. I can attest that the bat was significantly more volatile.
(Speaking of volatile roommates, check out our episodes The Forsaken Flatmate and Korean Folklore, Death Days, and the Haunted Queens Apartment to learn about squatters of the ethereal kind.)
Nahkhiir. Pretty straightforward: nahk is “leather/skin”, hiir is “mouse”. Skin mouse?? Ok, I see where you’re going, but I’m going to jump the track while I still can.
蝙蝠 (Biānfú), both complete characters of which are only ever used in the word “bat”. Or words descriptive of bats, like batwing-sleeved dress. Chinese etymology works completely differently than Western etymology, in that each character conveys a meaning, rather than a pronunciation. The same character means the same concept in various dialects/languages, but can sound very, VERY different.
Root characters for “bat” include 扁, which basically means flat, modified by the radical for insect. Also 富 which means “rich.” It is part of the word fortune (aka good fortune), and also modified by the radical for insect. Because in Mandarin “fortune” also sounds like “fú” you could say the word 蝙蝠 literally translates as “flat insect of fortune.” Due to the similarities in writing and the homonym, bats are traditionally a lucky symbol in China. This also seems completely different from the western interpretation of bats as spooky creatures of misfortune. We’re with you on this one, China. Bats eat mosquitoes, which is indeed fortunate, even if you’re not goth.
Honorable mentions for literal meaning/origin of the word “bat”
French: chauve-souris, or “bald mouse”,
Italian: pipistrello, or “overcoat with a sleeveless cape”,
Korean: 박쥐 (bagjwi), or “bright-eyed rat”,
Maltese: frfett il-lejl, or “butterfly of the night”,
Shona: chiremwaremwa, (I’m curious if this is related to the word “monster?”)
Kazakh: жарғанат (jarğanat),
Lao: ເຈຍ (chia),
Thai: ค้างคาว (which I think might mean something along the lines of “a lingering fishy stink”, of all things!)
Do you speak a language where the word “bat” is more interesting than it is in English? If so, please let me know in the comments!
Header image copyright Craig on Adobe Stock.