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And Now for Some Literary 'Critter'cism

Rob Kyff on

Edith Frankel of Hannawa Falls, New York, sent me this sentence from Science News: "An array of critters, not just the iconic polar bear, make their homes in and on the sea ice." Edith asks, "Is 'critter' now an acceptable substitute for 'creature'?"

(And, yes, I know the collective noun "array" sounds like a singular noun, but the writer is thinking of that array as individual critters, so "make their homes" is correct.)

Now back to those critters. ... I think I first heard "critter" in the 1950s while watching Walt Disney's "Davy Crockett" series on TV. Davy, played by Texas-born Fess Parker, must have said something in his Southern drawl about "grinning down 'bars' (bears) and other critters."

"Critter," which is indeed a version of "creature," is a living linguistic fossil. It reflects the way "creature" was pronounced in 16th- and 17th-century English.

Back then, the "crea" in "creature" was rendered as "kray," and the "-ture" suffix was pronounced, not as "chure," as it is today, but as "tur." So, "creature" was spoken as "kray-tur," which, after several pints at the local pub, morphed into "critter."

Immigrants from the British isles brought the word "critter" with them when they settled in eastern North America during the 1600s and 1700s (as well as a lot of actual critters -- some large, some microscopic, most itchy).

While in England "critter" had referred to any animal, in America its meaning narrowed to "a horse, cow, ox or mule." In 1829, for instance, one observer of American regional language noted that "critter" was "much employed in New England for horses, oxen ... (while) in Virginia, the word is often restricted to the horse."

 

Eventually, "critter" broadened again to its original meaning of any animal, whether wild or domestic, and soon, it quite understandably also came to refer to lively young children. (When a fellow teacher once told me that another colleague was a good biology teacher "because she loved critters," I wasn't sure whether he meant she loved animals or children.)

As for the acceptability of "critter," no commentators condemn the term as "nonstandard." Most label it "informal." "Critter" falls into the same category as "gator," "varmint" and "tetchy" -- colorful dialectical terms that convey a jocular, playful tone.

The writer who juxtaposed the vernacular "critters" with the lofty "iconic polar bear" in Science News was surely just funnin' us.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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