February 18, 2003
More Than You Want To Know About Weasels

If anyone was wondering, the Latin word for 'weasel' is mustela, with a long e. The first syllable rhymes with 'puss' or 'wuss', the second with 'fail' or 'wail', the third is a short 'ah', like the A at the end of Spanish 'casa'. The accent is on the second syllable. The word is actually broader than English 'weasel', and refers to a "weasel, polecat, or similar quadruped" (Oxford Latin Dictionary). It is feminine: the Latin names of most undomesticated animals are usually either masculine or feminine, no matter what the gender of the individual beast.

The first mention of a weasel in Latin is in Plautus, the earliest Roman author whose works survive in more than fragments. His seldom-read (even by classicists) comedy Stichus includes these lines (499-500) from the parasite Gelasimus ('Mr. Laughable'):

certum est mustelae posthac numquam credere
nam incertiorem nullam novi bestiam.

I'll never trust a weasel after this, that's settled,
for I know no beast more unreliable.

Plautus loves alliteration (lots of Ts in the first line and Ns in the second) and word-play (certum, 'settled', and incertiorem, 'unreliable' are etymologically related).

This may sound like the perfect description of certain members of the UN, EU, and NATO, but Gelasimus isn't talking about the moral character of weasels. At the beginning of the scene he saw a weasel with a mouse in its mouth and took that as an omen indicating that he would be invited to a lavish dinner by his patron. He has just been told that the other guests are far too important for him to get anywhere near them. Of course, we can always take the quotation out of context and apply it to anyone we please.

In his Natural History (29.60), Pliny the Elder reports that the gall of the wild weasel is effective against asps. He doesn't say whether it repels them, or cures their bites, or what. I'm sure it's a coincidence that the U.S. Air Force has (or had) a Wild Weasel, an "aircraft that has been modified to identify, locate and physically suppress or destroy ground-based enemy air defense systems" (more details here).

Scientifically, the weasel family (Mustelidae) includes five subfamilies, one each for skunks, otters, badgers, and honey badgers, and one (Mustelinae) for weasels, ferrets, stoats, polecats, martens, fishers, and wolverines -- also (much pleasanter, at least when they're dead) sables, ermines, and minks. I think an ermine and a stoat are the same thing, but web-sources are not entirely clear on this point.

Favorite weasel fact:

Like snakes, weasels are not found in Ireland.

Favorite non-Plautine weasel quotation:

"Stories of aggressive gangs of weasels marauding the countryside have been perpetuated by fictional tales like The Wind in the Willows." (The Mammal Society)

Books that you probably already know if you care enough about weasels and their cousins to want to read a whole book about them:

King, C. (1989) The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. Christopher Helm, London.
Sleeman, P. (1989) Stoats and Weasels, Polecats and Martens. Whittet Books, London.

I suspect that King and Sleeman were each a bit peeved when they found that someone else had also published a whole book about weasels in the same year. It can't have helped sales for either author.

If anyone is wondering how to say 'Axis of Weasels' in Latin, that is a complex question. Axis Mustelarum won't do, because Latin axis means 'axle' or 'axis' (as in the earth's axis) or sometimes 'sky', but is not used to refer to political alliances. 'Conspiracy of Weasels' would be Coniuratio Mustelarum or Coniuratio Mustelina. I prefer the latter, which includes a slight play on words: literally it means 'Weasely Alliance', which could mean that the members are weasels, or act weaselly, or both. Perhaps best of all would be Foedus Mustelarum, a 'Pact' or 'Treaty of Weasels'. The noun foedus is related to 'federal' and 'federation'. There is also an unrelated adjective foedus that means 'foul, loathsome, ghastly, unclean, repulsive, hideous, monstrous, horrible, beastly, disgraceful, vile, coarse, foul, low, obscene', and so on (unabridged dictionaries give even more equivalents). Since the noun is neuter, a Filthy (or whatever) Treaty would be a Foedus Foedum.

There is one more possibility. The alliance of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, and the later alliance of Mark Antony, Octavian (the later Augustus), and Lepidus, were both known as triumvirates, since each consisted of three men (tres viri). An alliance of three weasels could presumably be a 'triummustelate', but that sounds awkward. It's tempting to match up the members. France is obviously Mark Antony, too busy working on his love life to defend his half of the empire. Belgium must be Lepidus, the junior partner whose name everyone tends to forget. That would make Germany Octavian, youthful heir to Julius Caesar. Not a military genius like his great-uncle, but just as ruthless and ambitious in a cold-hearted way. In the original competition, Octavian won. See, anyone can play the game of historical parallels!

Thus endeth today's lesson.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at February 18, 2003 11:32 PM

According to my 1966 Webster's New World Dictionary, the ermine and the stoat are the same animal, but calling it an ermine implies it's in its winter (white) coat, while stoat implies it's in its summer coat. I've heard of ermine trimmed robes, but not stoat trimmed.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on February 19, 2003 08:52 AM

Arthur Silber and I had a discussion on the sublime and profane nature of the weasel, which you may find amusing. You will find it here.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on February 20, 2003 07:27 PM

How can I rid my farm from the weasel? It has completely destroyed my chickens and ducks. Is there some kind of bait that I can feed them or do I just have to forget about my fowls?

Posted by: J Harrison on February 25, 2003 11:15 AM

can you describe a weasels feces for me ?

I am a nuisence trapper in the metro Atlanta area and I do not come in contact with weasels on a regular basis. Recently we came across a problem we have described to the property owner as a norway rat; but we are not catching any and the problem is reoccuring with regularity. We think we might be dealing with a weasel, but nobody knows what the droppings look like. Can you help ?


Posted by: Bob on October 2, 2003 07:41 PM

How does one get weavels out of a garage?

Posted by: David on October 28, 2004 02:31 PM