Hedgehogs and Urchins

I discovered today that sea urchins (echinoidea) are known as zee-egels (sea hedgehogs) in Dutch, and that they used to be known as sea hedgehogs in English as well. They have similar names in other languages, for example, in German they are Seeigel (sea hedgehogs), in French they are oursins or hérissons de mer (sea hedgehogs) and in Spanish they are erizos de mar (sea hedgehogs).

The word urchin comes from the Middle English word yrichon (hedgehog), from the Old North French word *irechon, from the Old French herichun (hedgehog) – in Modern French hedgehog is hérisson – from the Vulgar Latin *hericionem, from the Latin ericius (hedgehog), from the Proto-Indo-European root *ghers- (to stiffen, bristle, stand out). From the same root we also get such English words as gorse, hirsute, horror and ordure.

The word urchin is apparently still used for hedgehog in some English dialects such as Cumbria, Yorkshire and Shropshire. It came to refer to people who looked or acted like hedgehogs from the early 16th century, and to poor, ragged youths from the mid 16th century, though this usage didn’t really take off until the late 18th century. Sea urchin was first used in the late 16th century.

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary and Indo-European Lexicon

3 thoughts on “Hedgehogs and Urchins

  1. ‘Urchin’ sounds similar to urson as well. Does anyone know where the French term ourson coquau stems from and why French speakers would call spiky animals ‘little bears’?

  2. “Ourson coquau” is another name in French for the ‘Porc-épic d’Amérique’ or North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in English whose synonyms are: Canadian porcupine, cawquaw, urson and common porcupine (in US, Canada).
    “Ourson” is a ‘bear cub’ which I’m betting “coquau” is actually the Cree word ‘cawquaw’ (Cree: kâkwa – ᑳᑲᐧ) for ‘porcupine’ rendered into French as ‘cawquaw’.

  3. Oops, sorry. That should’ve been:
    “…I’m betting “coquau” is actually the Cree word ‘cawquaw’ (Cree: kâkwa – ᑳᑲᐧ) for ‘porcupine’ rendered into French as ‘coquau’.”

    In French sea urchins are called ‘oursins’, ‘hérissons de mer’ (sea hedgehogs) and also ‘châtaignes de mer’ which means ‘sea chestnuts’. They are also called ‘sea chestnut’ in Turkish ‘deniz kestanesi’. Sea urchin in Welsh is: ‘môr-ddraenog’, ‘draenog môr’ (sea hedgehog) and also ‘ŵy môr’ (sea egg).

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