Year of the muroid

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Many people have asked me, should it really be the lunar new year of the rat?  Such a disgusting creature!  Or should it be the year of the mouse?  Although we do our best to trap them and otherwise keep them out of our living spaces, mice are much cuter than rats, and some people even have special mice as pets, plus there are folk tales and songs and proverbs about adorable little mice, and who doesn't love Mickey and Minnie?

In contrast, in lore and literature, rats are invariably cast as tricky at best and villainous, criminal types at worst.

So, if I had to choose between Year of the Rat and Year of the Mouse, I would definitely pick Year of the Mouse.  Alas, most people choose otherwise (I know not why):

Year of the Rat — 44,000,000 ghits

Year of the Mouse — 6,300,000 ghits

The problem is that, in Chinese it is just "shǔ nián 鼠年".  If you want to be scientifically accurate, that should be translated into English as "year of the muroid".

The Muroidea are a large superfamily of rodents, including mice, rats, voles, hamsters, gerbils, and many other relatives.

Source

We face the same problem with the years of the cow / bull / ox / buffalo and sheep / goat, etc. (see the "Readings").

 

Readings

"Year of the ovicaprid" (2/15/15)

"Happy NIU2 Year!" (1/7/09)

"Happy New Year Rabbit You " (1/4/11)

"Year of the cock" (1/4/17)



22 Comments »

  1. Guy Plunkett III said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 3:20 pm

    People also have rats as pets, FWIW. But I suspect that one reason people choose Rat over Mouse is precisely because Rat is a trickster character — like Coyote, Loki, Anansi, et al., they make for better stories.

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 3:33 pm

    "… plus there are folk tales and songs and proverbs about adorable little mice, and who doesn't love Mickey and Minnie.

    In contrast, in lore and literature, rats are invariably cast as tricky at best and villainous, criminal types at worst."

    Do you mean in European tradition, or in Chinese?

  3. Murray Smith said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 3:38 pm

    Anna Wierzbicka's observation may be relevant here. She finds that the English distinction between "rat" and "mouse" is not made in Japanese, which has a single word that covers all rodents. Perhaps the same is true of the Chinese languages? See her Semantics: Primes and Universals, page 339-347.

  4. Mark Metcalf said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 4:32 pm

    A fitting tribute to the late Umberto Eco's masterpiece "Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation". If you haven't read it, read it!

  5. Neil Kubler said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 4:52 pm

    In Malaysia, where about one-fourth of the population is of Chinese ethnic origin, The Year of the Rat is in fact celebrated as The Year of the Mouse, with Mickey Mouse often used (sometimes with and sometimes without permission from Disney) as its symbol.

  6. jdmartinsen said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 6:36 pm

    Year of the Rodent? 鼠 captures not just the rats, mice, and gerbils under Muroidea, but a wide range of other creatures under Rodentia, including the prairie dog (土拔鼠/草原犬鼠), squirrel (松鼠), chinchilla (毛丝鼠), degu (八齿鼠), and guinea pig (豚鼠).

  7. wanda said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 6:38 pm

    As someone who like rodents, my observation is that most people could not tell the difference between a rat and a mouse if given only one of these to observe. Therefore the fact that the English language distinguishes these two things is not very useful to them.
    In any case, "rats" and "mice" do not represent distinct taxonomic categories and, as far as I can tell, are applied to individual rodent species based on their size and tails. For example, the family Nesomyidae contains both the "pouched rats" and the "pouched mice", and is very distinct from the clade Murinae containing the house mouse and the lab rat.
    I am not sure "Muroid" is not a good translation for "鼠". For example, kangaroos are "袋鼠" despite not being muroids.

  8. TKMair said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    Muriods ?? Rodentia ??

    I had heard of Rodentia but not heard of Muriod classification, so I started to look up the latter. And now I am a bit confused, but I think on the right track, let's go on shall we? It's a good refresher or inquiry into what the old standards of Taxonomic Classification are.

    Wikipeadia on "Muroid"
    "The Muroidea are a large superfamily of rodents, including mice, rats, voles, hamsters, gerbils, and many other relatives. They occupy a vast variety of habitats on every continent except Antarctica."

    On The Taxonomic Classification of Mouse,
    "The house mouse belongs to the Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Rodentia, Family: Muridae, Subfamily: Murinae, Genus: Mus, Species: musculus [5]. Its Binomial name is Mus musculus."

    So Rodentia are an order (larger set) and Muridae are a family (smaller set) within Rodentia! Other rodents that are not Muridae include squirrel (Sciuridae family), beaver (Castoridae family) and porcupine (Erethizontidae family).

    Thanks VHM for starting a little learning!

  9. TKMair said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

    btw @ Wanda, I like your comment above. My Chinese is not at a high level to know the word Kangaroo, however it does not surprise me at all that the word would include the same graphism as shu, mouse, does. That is the impossibility of demading 2 different languages and cultures conform to 1 method of classification. The old Taxonomic standard sets Kangaroo apart as a marsupial whereas the Chinese view is that it looks a little like a gigantic mouse. Cheers!

  10. B.Ma said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 12:05 am

    What would people suggest as "muroid"- /"ovicaprid"-style names for each of the zodiac animals?

  11. Ethan said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 12:47 am

    @TKMair: It's not even necessary that the animal in question looks particularly mouse-like. The use of 鼠 indicates that the word refers to an animal, leaving the first part of the word to narrow it down. English does the same thing, as in "warthog", "groundhog", "hedgehog".

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 1:40 am

    This story describes one Japanese outpost (in Nagoya) of an American donut chain offering a special "mouse" donut to celebrate the year of the "rat." Whether the donut is in fact described _in Japanese_ with an animal-name word that specifically contrasts with that used for the year (versus that contrast being made explicit only in the English-language description of the situation) is not clear to me. https://www.newsweek.com/krispy-kreme-japan-rolls-out-premium-mouse-doughnut-ahead-2020-year-rat-1479260

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    Year of the Small Deer? (cf. Tom in King Lear.)

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 10:58 am

    What Mark Metcalf said. Eco is brilliant on this. (Italian doesn't distinguish mice and rats either.)

  15. wanda said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 2:27 am

    Re: who likes rats and mice.
    If you've ever kept any of these animals as pets, rats win hands down. Mice are anxious little creatures (of course they are; everything eats them, including rats). It is much more difficult to train them to even be comfortable with you or to enjoy petting. Rats, on the other hand, readily interact with people for fun and cuddles. Because of their larger size, they can also interact more easily with other household pets, as long as the other pets aren't inclined to eat them. They are also much more easily trained to do tricks. I do agree that the standard rat is less cute than the standard mouse, but there are cuter strains such as the dumbo rat, which is really adorable.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 5:58 am

    鼠 captures not just the rats, mice, and gerbils under Muroidea, but a wide range of other creatures under Rodentia, including the prairie dog (土拔鼠/草原犬鼠)

    I am not sure "Muroid" is not a good translation for "鼠". For example, kangaroos are "袋鼠" despite not being muroids.

    These don't seem like especially meaningful points. The implication would appear to be that the Chinese consider crocodiles (鳄鱼) to be a type of fish (鱼), or indeed that Americans consider jellyfish to be a type of fish. But of course that isn't true. If kangaroos are named "pocket mice", why would we draw the inference that the category "mice" includes kangaroos?

  17. AntC said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 7:50 am

    By coincidence, today in the Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area, I saw an info board claiming a squirrel is allowable for the rat zodiac sign.

    This is in a steeply-forested thermal spring/spa valley near Taitung, Taiwan. The info board was claiming within the Park were endemic species of all the zodiac signs. Several claims needed quite a stretch: for Tiger was the Formosan Clouded Leopard, classified as extinct for at least a century.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 1:40 pm

    Some non-trivial number of American kids of my generation were probably given a more positive impression of rats by reading the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which won the Newbery Medal exactly four Years of the Rat ago, in 1972.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    Re Neofelis nebulosa brachyura, see Keoni Everington's account of a reported sighting.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 3:11 pm

    Sorry, URL disappeared in posting. See Keoni Everington's account.

  21. BZ said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 3:22 pm

    I loved Mrs. Frisbee, but it didn't change my opinion of rats in general. Neither did Master Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

  22. William Berry said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 11:16 pm

    "Trump is a good public speaker"

    If you didn't already know that McArdle was a Trump-loving, Reichwing, Republican hack— well, now you do.

    And what commenter Viseguy said WRT the, er, somewhat strange remarks about "ad". The usage goes back decades— the industry PR association called the "Ad Council" has been around for what; fifty years or more?— and is completely standard in American English. To paraphrase someone saying something: Why use four syllables when one will do (while still delivering precisely the same signification).

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