Skunk stunk

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Two nights ago, it was raining heavily, with lightning and thunder every so often.  As I was peering out into the blackness of my backyard, all of a sudden, a bright light flashed on.  At first I thought it was lightning, but then I realized that someone or something had set off the light.  It didn't take long for me to spot a gleaming, coal black skunk crawling around through the brush.

Most striking were the narrow, white stripe on its forehead and along the length of its nose and the two broad swaths of white fur along its back.  It was so beautiful, all soaked in the rain, that I wanted to go out and get a closer look (make friends with it, so to speak), but my companion said, "No way!"

Seeing the glistening creature made me think of its name:  skunk.  Somehow that seemed so appropriate because it resonated with "stink / stunk", its most distinctive quality.  That got me thinking whether the name has anything to do with its foul odor.  Not really:

common weasel-like mammal of North America that emits a fetid odor when threatened, 1630s, squunck, from a southern New England Algonquian language (perhaps Massachusett) word, from Proto-Algonquian */šeka:kwa/, from */šek-/ "to urinate" + */-a:kw/ "fox" [Bright].

Among Europeans, who sometimes called it after their polecat, the skunk is one of the earliest noted and described of the North American animals. Sagard-Théodat's "Histoire du Canada" (1636) introduced it to the naturalists as "enfans du diable, que les Hurons appelle Scangaresse, … une beste fort puante," etc.

Eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer, who tangled with one, wrote, "Had I a hundred tongues I should think them all insufficient to convey an adequate idea of the stench" and concluded that "Europe may be congratulated upon her good fortune in being unacquainted with this cursed beast" ["An Account of the Abipones," as translated from the Latin by Sara Coleridge, the poet's daughter].


What about "stink, stunk"?

Old English stincan "emit a smell of any kind; exhale; rise (of dust, vapor, etc.)," a class III strong verb; past tense stanc, past participle stuncen, common West Germanic (cognates: Old Saxon stincan, West Frisian stjonke, Old High German stinkan, Dutch stinken), from the root of stench.

Old English had swote stincan "to smell sweet," but the "offensive scent" notion in the word also was in Old English and predominated by mid-13c.; smell (intrans.) later tended the same way.


Wait a minute, though!  German has two words for "skunk".  One is, like the English word, derived from Algonquian, and the same is true of many other European (and related) languages:

  • → Czech: skunk
  • → Danish: skunk
  • → German: Skunk
  • → Finnish: skunkki
  • → French: skunks
  • → Icelandic: skunkur
  • → Japanese: スカンク (sukanku)
  • → Norwegian: skunk
  • Polish: skunks
  • Russian: скунс (skuns)
  • Slovak: skunk
  • Swedish: skunk


What do you do if you don't borrow the Algonquin word (through English)?

Chinese, I know, calls this fetid feline chòu yòu 臭鼬 ("stinky ferret").  The skunk is not really a feline (though the two are fairly close [see below]), while ferrets belong to the mustelid (weasel)  family, along with otters, badgers, pine martens, polecats, wolverines and more. (source)  Skunks used to be thought of as closely related to weasels, but now they have their own family, Mephitidae (source), "which are the nearest family to felidae, including the domestic housecat (Felis catus)."  (source)

Now back to that second German word for "skunk".  It's one that I really like:  Stinktier:  "Compound of stinken (to stink) +‎ Tier (animal). Compare Dutch stinkdier". (Wiktionary)

I wonder how many other languages have a word like that for "skunk", "animal that stinks"?


Selected readings


  1. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 8:39 pm

    See Wiktionary, s.v. Chicago. Potowami, which was spoken in the area, has šikaakwa "wild onion, striped skunk' and cognate words for 'leek'.I'm not an Americanist, but I know some have related "skunk" to the etymon of Chicago. Forgive me, but this gives me the opportunity to recycle a silly but memorable pun of Paul Krassner: Shall we, for "skunk", etymologically take a leak or take a leek? Krassner suggested the 1st for the name of a cookbook.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 8:50 pm

    Just thought of a riddle in an old-fashioned style:
    ill 'tis in odor
    something with a motor.
    Answer ILTIS: German 'polecat' and a sort of jeep first made by
    Martin Schwartz

  3. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 9:22 pm

    Make that Potawatomi. A search of collocated "Chicago" and "skunk" has relevant results.

  4. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 9:29 pm

    oops, Krassner's cookbook suggestion was "Take a Leek".

  5. cameron said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 9:48 pm

    Persian has gandrāsu ( گندراسو ) which literally means stinkweasel

  6. ycx said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 10:10 pm

    Looking through the wiktionary page for skunk, there's a few interesting ones:

    Esperanto has "mefito", from the same root as "mephitic" and the genus of the skunk "Mephitis".

    Italian has "moffetta", from "muffa" (mold/mildew). Many Romance languages have a similar variant.

    Hungarian has "bűzösborz", literally "stinky-badger".

    Louisiana French has "bête-puante", literally "beast-stinky".

    Portuguese has "gambá", which is a borrowing from Tupi instead of Algonquian. It also can refer to two different animals, opossums and skunks.

    Russian has "вонючка", literally "little stink"

  7. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:28 pm

    @ cameron: Per. gandrāsū parallels the etymological formation of Eng. foulmart (< foul and cf. marten)..

  8. David Chop said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:45 pm

    That Dobrizhoffer quote is pure gold.

  9. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:48 pm

    @ cameron: Pers. rāsū, which had to have had *-ka/ā- suffixation,
    may well be cognate with Russ. las-ka and its Slavic cognates for'weasel', which based on old *-u- stem to which -ka was added. Pahlavi is a problem, however.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 4:30 am

    @ycx, the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española gives Italian moffetta as the origin of Spanish mofeta, but rather than tying it in to mildew links it to the other meaning of mofeta, toxic gasses emanating from a mine, volcanic fissure, or other underground source. This does seem a bit more of an obvious connection than mildew.

  11. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 5:19 am

    I have reported this before, but perhaps worth mentioning again that not all humans find the smell of skunk objectionable — I have frequently encountered skunk odour while travelling in Ontario (Canada) and find the smell attractively feral.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 6:33 am

    My father used to think that cow manure spread on the fields in springtime was actually fragrant. People in Nepal and India believe that cow manure spread on the walls and floors of their houses protects, freshens, and sanitizes them.

    In this age of climate change fear, we are all well aware of the bad rap that cow belches, burps, farts, and poop get because of the greenhouse gas methane they emit,



    manure methane spread on the ground oxidizes to form ozone (source)


    cow dung emits ozone


    ozone has disinfecting and sterilizing properties

  13. Francisco said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 8:19 am

    @ycx, the conflation of gambá, a marsupial, and skunk, a mustelid, occurs in Brazilian usage. In European Portuguese it is doninha fedorenta, literally 'stinking weasel'. Both countries thus name the skunk in relation to species found in their own fauna.

  14. l17r said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    German native speaker here – FWIW, the term “Skunk” in German is very technical and I've never heard *anyone* use it. Based on written sources I've read, I assume it's the technical term used almost exclusively by biologists.

  15. Andrew McCarthy said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 10:25 am

    Imagine if the early European settlers in America had translated the meaning of the Algonquian name rather than imitating its sound. Given the 17th century's unashamedness when it comes to scatology, we could've ended up calling the skunk the "pissfox".

  16. cameron said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 10:41 am

    @martin schwartz – I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Persian rāsu had Slavic cognates. Did LL ever look into "weasel words"? "weasel", "wisent", and "bison" are a bit obscure in their origin.

  17. Gene Hill said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    When I was a child in Okla. I noticed that there were several cans of tomato juice on a shelf in the screened canning porch at the back door. When I asked why they were there, I was told that it was in case somebody got skunk sprayed. But it wasn't until I was a teen in Texas that I saw it applied. A group of us teens were on a fishing trip when one of us, against the advice of every one else, proceeded to aggravate a skunk. Skunks can out annoy anyone. As a result, the offender had to ride home slowly on the fender of the car. And even when he got home, His parent wouldn't let him in the house. But handed him a large can of tomato juice to bathe with. I think that the acid of the tomato juice neutralizes the self oxidizing properties of the skunk urine.

  18. Seonachan said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 11:52 am

    This reminds me of a joke from a book I had as a kid, about a skunk family with two children, In and Out. One day In was out and Out was in, and their mother told Out to go out and bring In in. Out returned with In right away. "How did you find him so fast?" their mother asked. "Instinct," replied Out.

  19. yandoodan said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 12:40 pm

    Skunk vs stunk:

    "The skunk sat on a stump. The stump thunk the skunk stunk. The skunk thunk the stump stunk."

  20. Eugene Anderson said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 1:16 pm

    The Maya (Maayah) word is pay. There are several species of skunk possible in Mayaland. Puns on English "pie" are made by the few who know both languages….

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 5:43 pm

    A lot of people think skunks are similar to cats because of the misrepresentation of skunks in the Disney movie Bambi. The skunk “Flower” stands more like a cat and doesn’t move like a real skunk. I have a deep loathing for Bambi and its cultural effects.

  22. Philip Anderson said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 6:38 pm

    @Andrew McCarthy
    ‘Pismire’ was an old word for an ant.

    ‘Drewgi’ (stinking dog) and the others is a Welsh term for a skunk. Although ‘ci’ means dog, and a corgi is a dwarf dog, -gi is used in compounds to name other animals:
    Dwrgi (otter=water-dog), gwenci (weasel=white-dog)
    Or people: ieithgi=“facet. or derog. term for one who is interested in the study of language”

  23. Cindy said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 11:12 pm

    I learned in HS French class the word for skunk was moufette.

  24. TKMair said,

    August 6, 2023 @ 12:05 am

    Andrew McCarty's comment wins. Piss Fox!

  25. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 6, 2023 @ 3:15 pm

    I learned of the existence of Texas German when I moved to Texas a few years ago. Many German immigrants, particularly those who left around the uprisings of 1848, ended up settling in the Texas Hill Country, around Fredericksburg, in enough concentrations that some of them still preserved the language over a century and a half later.

    One of the distinctive developments often mentioned distinguishing Texas German from European German (and presumably Pennsylvania Dutch?) is the word "Stinkkatze", rather than the standard "Stinktier" for skunk.

  26. KeithB said,

    August 7, 2023 @ 8:26 am

    Barbara Phillips Long:
    Yeah, skunks have the mustelid "waddle". But Disney can be excused for not wanting to bring a skunk into the studio as a model!

  27. Robert Coren said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 11:06 am

    Victor's story reminds me of a night a couple of decades ago, right around this time of year, when I had set up a recliner on the lawn in order to watch the Perseid meteor shower; at one point a skunk wandered across the lawn, only the white stripes actually visible in the darkness. It was quite beautiful, and I kept as still as I could, knowing that alarming a skunk can have unfortunate results.

  28. David Marjanović said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 6:21 am

    German native speaker here – FWIW, the term “Skunk” in German is very technical and I've never heard *anyone* use it.


    the skunk urine

    It's not urine! There's a pair of special stench glands somewhere on a skunk's backside.

    "weasel", "wisent", and "bison" are a bit obscure in their origin.

    The latter two are probably related to each other and to a wide range of vaguely similar words all the way into the Caucasus, but no further – probably they come from a/the Neolithic European language family.

    A lot of people think skunks are similar to cats because of the misrepresentation of skunks in the Disney movie Bambi. The skunk “Flower” stands more like a cat and doesn’t move like a real skunk. I have a deep loathing for Bambi and its cultural effects.

    Fun fact: the original book is set in central Europe, Bambi is a roe, explaining what it's doing in the same place as a hare (a field, that is), and of course there's no skunk whatsoever.

  29. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 11:19 am

    David — I don't think I've previously encountered a bare "roe" as the common name for an Capreolus capreolus. In British English such creatures are normally referred to as "roe deers". But was she, in fact, a roe deer, or a doe, or both ?

  30. Robert Coren said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 11:58 am

    Philip: Bambi was male, so presumably a roe buck (or roebuck). His mother is also a character; would she be a roe doe?

  31. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 10, 2023 @ 5:16 pm

    She would indeed. Robert (I wonder why I never thought of Bambi as being male). But I must correct myself — In British English such creatures are normally referred to as "roe deer" (not "roe deers" as I had originally typed). See Fabienne Toupin, About Plural Morphology and Game Animals: from Old English to Present-Day English,

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