A fun fact on polecats: they only exist in Europe, so whatever you thought were polecats in America are actually either ferrets or skunks. Additionally, it's related more closely to the dog than the cat, so there are two misleading animals in its name. Yes, two. The word polecat is a portmanteau of two Middle French words: pole, meaning "chicken", and cat, meaning "cat". It was so named because it looked like a cat and liked to eat hens. Anyway, pole, which is related to the modern-day French word for "chicken", poulet, comes from the Old French word poule, which in turn derives from the Latin word pullus, meaning "young animal" but especially referring to birds. This ultimately originates from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) reconstruction pau, meaning "little". Onto cat; it would not surprise anyone that it has the same root as English cat. Indeed, both words can be traced to Latin cattus, by one way or another. This is a curious word with an origin likely not grounded in the Indo-European languages, but that's all we know. So, the doglike polecat actually has a name meaning "chicken cat", or "little cat", depending on how far back you go. But, whether "chicken" or "little", the cat always remained.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a junior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.