- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a hedgehog
Three old nicknames for hedgehogs—herisson, furzepig, and land-urchin—cropped up on HH on Thursday, and ended up among the week’s most popular facts:
So here’s a little bit more about them. Herisson was borrowed into English from French in the sixteenth century; hérisson, as some of you will undoubtedly know, is still the French word for “hedgehog”. Both these English and French terms derive from the Latin word for the hedgehog, ericius—which is also the origin of the “urchin” in land-urchin, as well as a host of other long-forgotten names for the hedgehog, like hurcheon and irchpil (a pil being a spike or prickle in Old English).
Urchin itself, incidentally, originally meant “hedgehog”—which makes sea-urchins, because of their spiny appearance, literally “sea-hedgehogs”.
But by the sixteenth century, that word had come to be attached to people or things with apparently hedgehog-like appearances or characters, including hunchbacks (c. 1528), brattish young children (1556), and hobgoblins (1584), and it’s from there that the use of urchin to mean a shabbily-attired youngster finally emerged in the late 1700s.
Last of all, the “furze” of furzepig, derived from Old English, is another name for the heathland plant gorse, or Ulex. It has been used in the nicknames of various British wild animals and birds since mediaeval times, so that as well as furzepigs, you might spot furze-cats (hares), furze-owls (cockchafer beetles), furze-kites (kestrels), furze-wrens (the Dartford warbler) and furze-chuckers (the brambling) on a walk in the English countryside.