What’s civet in Norwegian?
Words about words
M. MICHAEL BRADY
Around the world, the everyday vernacular has acquired words to describe the diseases of the ongoing pandemic. The pandemic is one of three sorts of disease caused by human coronaviruses, so named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces and first identified in the mid-1960s. Hence, the descriptive words are mostly new. The diseases come from animals, so the new words are those of the lingo of zoonosis, the study of diseases of animals communicable to humans.
English and Norwegian share a common heritage as Germanic languages, so most of the new words are of Old Norse or Latin heritage. But the English word civet is an exception. It’s a relatively recent addition to English, first mentioned in 1532 in the “Calendar of State Papers” of the reign of King Henry VIII. The mention is brief, just that a “beast called a civet” was among the New Year’s gifts to the king.
A civet is a carnivorous quadruped of the central African species Viverra civetta, a member of the Viverridae family of small to medium-sized mammals known for the musky scent they produce. It was the intermediate host that carried the SARS-CoV virus from bats to humans, the cause of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) disease of 2002-2004.
The camel is the intermediate host that carries the MERS-CoV virus from bats to humans, the cause of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) disease first identified in 2012. It still exists, because people and camels still interact.
The intermediate host that carries the COVID-19 virus from bats to humans, the cause of the ongoing pandemic, was first recognized in 2019-2020 and has yet to be identified.
The word civet is not in any contemporary bilingual Norwegian-English dictionary. That lack is overcome via Latin. In Norwegian, the Viverridae family is known as snikekattfamilien, literally, “the stink cat family.” So in Norwegian, a civet is a snikekatt.
This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.