Better PR for bats

« previous post | next post »

A link from Michael Glazer, with the note "Bats have been getting a bad name recently epidemiologically, so it’s nice to hear them mentioned in a positive way": "Nathan Ruiz, "Young bats offer hope…", WaPo 7/27/2021.

Well, OK, the full headline makes the real context clear: "Young bats offer hope as Orioles fall to Marlins". But as Michael observes,

Zoologically, we’ve got three of the Vertebrata subphylum’s seven Classes here. Stuff in Sidewinders and Sharks, and there’s another two. Jawless fishes and amphibians strike me as a bit more challenging in the way of sports team names. The Mar-a-Lago Lampreys? The Calaveras Jumping Frogs? I dunno.

And his closing: "I leave you to identify a linguistics hook!"

The most obvious hook is the etymological one — how did the common name of Chiroptera come to be the same as the word for "A stick or stout piece of wood", and especially for the stick-like objects that play a role in cricket, baseball, etc.

The OED's etymology for the "stick" meaning is already complicated:

As the nominative singular does not occur in 13th cent., it is uncertain whether it was bat or batte, and thus whether it was an adoption of Old French batte (partly identical in sense, referred by Littré to battre to beat), or represented an Old English *bat (feminine) ‘fustis,’ alleged by Somner, from an unknown source. The forms in Layamon rather favour the latter; but in any case some of the senses are from French batte. The supposed Old English *bat is by some referred to a Celtic origin; compare Irish and Gaelic bat, bata staff, cudgel. The development and relations of the senses are obscure: some of them appear to be from the verb, and some may be immediately due to onomatopoeia, from the sound of a solid, slightly dull, blow: compare pat. Thus there may be two or three originally distinct words, though no longer satisfactorily separable.

And the etymology of the Chiroptera sense is just as tangled, but mostly separate:

The modern bat, found c1575, takes the place of Middle English bakke, apparently < Scandinavian; compare Danish aften-bakke ‘evening-bat,’ Old Danish nath-bakkæ, Old Swedish (Ihre) natt-backa ‘night-bat.’ Swedish dialect have also natt-batta. natt-blacka: with the latter compare Icelandic leðr-blaka ‘bat,’ lit. ‘leather-flutterer,’ < blaka ‘to flap, wave, flutter with wings,’ whence it has been suggested that bakke, backa have lost an l; but as the l does not appear in the Old Swedish and Old Danish forms above, this is very unlikely. The medieval Latin blatta, blacta, batta, glossed ‘lucifuga, vespertilio, vledermus’ (Diefenbach Suppl. to Du Cange) = classical Latin blatta ‘an insect that shuns the light’ (blattae lucifugae, Vergil) ‘cockroach, moth,’ is distinct in origin, but may have influenced the English change to bat; evidence is wanting. Back- in combination, backie-bird, bawkie-bird still survive in north English and Sc.

So it's not a surprise that stout sticks and Chiroptera have different names in most (all?) other languages.

Some years ago, our room in a nice Taipei hotel had a bat hanging in the window curtains, who flew around the room when we entered, and resisted our attempts to persuade it to leave. On heading out for our next local event, we described the bat problem to the helpful staff at the front desk, whose English seemed to be excellent. And when we returned a few hours later, they helpfully presented us with a Louisville Slugger. I hate to imagine what they thought we wanted to do with it.

As I recall, a short impromptu language lesson resolved the lexical misunderstanding; we left the stout stick with the front desk; and the bat was willing to fly out the window once it was dark outside.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 2:27 pm

    Surprised by the OED's use of "medieval" in your second quotation ("The medieval Latin blatta, blacta, batta"), I consulted the online edition to find that they do indeed use that spelling (I would have expected "mediæval" or "mediaeval" in a British English text), but then read on to discover that proof-reading in the OED is no longer what it was in Murray's day: "Of about 17 species found in Britain the best-known are the Common Bat or Pipistrelle ( Vespertilio Pipistrellus)". Note the spurious space after the opening parenthesis, the out-of-date genus Vespertilio, and the inappropriate capitalisation of the species pipistrellus.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 3:57 pm

    In case anyone's wondering about the not-so-Latin-looking vledermus: that's in any case related to modern German Fledermaus "bat", which is less of an etymological mystery in that the "mouse" part is obvious, but still the rest is a cran morpheme. It is explained from flattern "flap, flutter", but I'm not sure how to make that work phonologically.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 4:49 pm

    Chiropterophiles (did I just invent that word?) everywhere will be happy to know that bats in traditional Chinese culture have for centuries been considered as auspicious creatures. This may help to account for the videos of young women gleefully eating them that circulated on the internet during the early part of 2020.

    For the textual, symbolic, and linguistic reasons behind this belief, see the following LL post:

    "Bats in Chinese language and culture: Early Sinitic reconstructions" (4/28/20)

    The post opens by featuring the colorful cover of the May 2020 CDC journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.

  4. JPL said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 8:50 pm

    I haven't looked at the OED or any dictionary yet, but could perhaps the 'bat' that includes the "baseball bat" sense have originated in a verbal context? (The 'bat' that denotes the Chiroptera probably did not.) The unifying semantic principle for the former seems to involve a sweeping or waving motion of the hand in an attempt to strike an object, e.g., a cat batting a suspended ball, rather than a focus on the "stout piece of wood" as a physical object. (E.g., a table tennis bat is not that stout, but the motion is of that type.)

  5. Joshua K. said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 10:49 pm

    Regarding teams named for amphibians, I was about to mention Texas Christian University's team, the Horned Frogs, but then I found out that the "horned frog" they are named for is actually a horned lizard, which is a reptile.

  6. maidhc said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 2:36 am

    Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
    In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
    There I couch when owls do cry.
    On the bat’s back I do fly
    After summer merrily.
    Merrily, merrily shall I live now
    Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

    When it comes to sports teams, the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs come to mind.

  7. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 5:10 am

    @Philip Taylor. Please … NOT mediæval, That ligature is quite unnecessary and unhistorical: the Romans were quite happy with AE — and look what they did for us!

  8. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 5:26 am

    The UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs have named themselves after a State Emblem – I believe the Banana Slug is the Californian State Gastropod or State Invertebrate. Imposing and colourful, but doesn't sound fast or aggressive.
    Australian Rules Football teams are sadly predictable in their choice of names, with Lions, Tigers, Bulldogs, Kangaroos etc. The Kangaroos re-named themselves from Shinboners in living memory (a lot of them used to be butchers and meatworkers). Magpies at least refers to a native bird which is notoriously aggressive – and in Queensland I noticed the Gladstone Mudcrabs – another fierce animal. Perhaps a new team could be the Flying-foxes, i.e. fruit-bats?

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 8:16 am

    For amphibians there's an amateur baseball team called the Holly Springs Salamanders and an amateur football team called FC Spotted Frog (whose logo looks suspiciously like Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows).

  10. wanda said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 10:32 am

    The banana slug is not the California state anything, unlike the desert tortoise, leatherback sea turtle, garibaldi, or lace lichen. Wikipedia has 2 stories about how the banana slug mascot came to be, and I've heard a third from a UCSC faculty member. All of them, though, involve the students thumbing their nose at a more dignified animal and choosing this humble but striking invertebrate. To be fair, the banana slug really does represent the campus fauna! Given their distribution in California, I'm pretty sure that UCSC is the only UC campus that has them. They need that damp forest environment, so even if a student comes from the nearby Bay Area, the student is unlikely to have seen one in the wild until coming to UCSC.

  11. Rodger C said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 12:55 pm

    The nighthawk is also called the "bull-bat." Online sources (using suspiciously similar language) trace this to "its perceived batlike flight," but I wonder if "bat" just basically means "nocturnal flying creature."

  12. Bob Moore said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

    @wanda: Strawberry Creek on UC Berkeley campus also has banana slugs. See

  13. wanda said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    @Bob Moore: Cool! I've been to UC Berkeley a bunch for various reasons (conferences, meetings, puzzle hunts- which involve walking all over campus) and never saw any there.
    On the other hand, there *definitely* aren't any golden bears at UC Berkeley. Mascots would be more interesting if they were required to be things on campus.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

    Rodger C: I've read that in Jamaican English or Patwa, "bat" includes moths. However, I haven't heard of owls being called bats.

    Nighthawks aren't hawks, either, though they're closer to hawks than to bats. I think that a lot of the people who have named animals haven't been too concerned with details of natural history that have no practical importance to them.

    For West Coast mollusk mascots, The Evergreen State College's mascot is the geoduck /ˈɡuːiˌdʌk/, a big tasty clam. TESC and UCSC might be closer in spirit than in geography. For more amphibians, there are a few Hellbenders at amateur levels, the Minnesota Mud Puppies and formerly the Florida Fire Frogs in minor league baseball, and Ajolotes FC ('axolotls') with a Facebook page. I was mildly surprised that the Wikipedia articles on the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders don't mention any teams named after them. Seems like a natural to me.

  15. JPL said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 1:20 am

    Not to mention, among other things, that (what I suggested were the original) verbal forms of the lexeme that includes reference to the stout sticks occur abundantly in any account of any baseball game, while I would guess that the other lexeme, for Chiroptera, still does not, at least in normal situations, occur in verbal contexts. The categories that are the meanings of the lexemes have no real historical or logical relation to each other, so it looks like a case of random homonymy. (Just to finish my comment above, on the "etymological hook".)

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 8:18 am

    Just on amphibian-based mascots, the intramural teams of Silliman College at Yale were traditionally called the Silliman Salamanders, although over time that came to be jocularly respelled and repronounced as "Sillimanders."

RSS feed for comments on this post