Nature Studies: Pity the poor polecat, the embodiment of evil for no particular reason

Why not insults like: “You low-down, yellow-bellied, lily-livered pine marten!”

Share

Using the names of animals as insults is very old, perhaps nearly as old as language itself. Sometimes the animal in question is perceived as obnoxious, harmful, gross or unclean; sometimes it’s merely the great physical contrast between the animal and the person being insulted which gives the affront its force. Whatever the case, we have long found certain creatures to be extremely useful symbols of human characteristics that we deem objectionable.

But which animals, and why them? Some have clearly come into use because they are the animals most familiar to us, “dog” being the most obvious, and perhaps the oldest of all, as a term of scorn. These days we might generally think of Fido as man’s best friend, but “dog” was long a common slur, as “b*tch” of course continues so unpleasantly to be. The Bible is full of references to dogs, all of them (as far as I can see) contemptuous, and even today many of us are familiar with the distasteful aphorism from the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly” (Proverbs 26.11). The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, quoted it in a political interview in 2009.

Other well-known animal names also spring immediately to mind for use as abuse, such as “rat”, “snake” and “pig”, the first indicating a treacherous or untrustworthy person, the second specifying someone even more subtly deceitful, and the last designating a person of gross or lamentable manners, broadened by the radicals of 1960s America to include the police. (The older porcine term “swine” now merely designates a person of whom one forcefully disapproves, like “b*stard”.)

But the names of less familiar animals are also used, and the reason is not always clear. Why was the term “shrew” long employed, most notably by Shakespeare, to designate a woman given to scolding? Why do we use the adjective “chicken” to mean cowardly, when the males of the domestic fowl were long known for their bravery in cock-fights? Why do we use the verb  “to badger”, meaning to harass irritatingly? Has anyone ever observed a badger in the wild, irritatingly harassing anyone, or anything?

I am put in mind of this by the news that a new survey is to be undertaken of one of our least-known wild animals, the polecat. A relative of the stoat, the weasel, the otter and the pine marten – that is, a mustelid – the wild polecat was driven to extinction in much of Britain, just as the pine marten was, by the gamekeepers of the Victorian shooting estates. By the mid-20th century, it was confined to central Wales and the Welsh borders (although the domesticated version, the ferret, continued to be kept as a pet).

In recent decades, however, polecats have recovered much ground and are spreading throughout Britain, and the Vincent Wildlife Trust, the estimable charity which specialises in research on our wild mammals, is asking the public to record all sightings of polecats, dead or alive, in 2014, if possible with a photograph, to ascertain just how extensive the spread is.

REX

With their bandit-like mask of dark and light facial fur, they are striking animals. I’ve only seen one once, when I was a young volunteer warden on a sand-dune nature reserve in Anglesey, but the sight of its sinuous, snaking, short-legged gallop as it scampered back into the dunes after spotting me was thrilling, and has stayed vividly with me; and I am delighted that more and more people may start to see them. Our mammal fauna is poor enough as it is.

Yet in certain quarters “polecat” is a heated term of abuse, and bizarrely, its most frequent location is in the American Western, both in films and in novels. It is part of that vocabulary which includes “pesky”, “ornery” and “varmint”, and is usually preceded by the adjective “low-down”. If you don’t believe me, Google it – you will find that for “low-down polecat” there are no fewer than 6,670 entries, nearly all of them in Western novels or film scripts.

Why should this particular mustelid be singled out to symbolise iniquity? Why not “you low-down stoat!”, “you low-down otter!”, or, for that matter, “you low-down, yellow-bellied, lily-livered pine marten!”? Polecats may have raided a few chicken runs in their time, but they’re only doing what comes naturally, and to make them the embodiment of evil seems unconscionable.

If you want to learn more about polecats in Britain, and their range and their spread, and this year’s survey, have a look at the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s website. You will find this is a splendid creature, and by no means an ornery, pesky varmint.

Up with the polecat, say I. No more low-down.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...