But no porcupine ever called me Guv’nor.
Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the word “urchin.” What exactly is the relationship between kids on the streets and spiny sea-bottom creatures that allows them to share the same name? — Alyson.
That’s a good question. After all, the sort of grimy-but-endearing “urchins” that populate Dickens novels and Sherlock Holmes stories were not known for their close acquaintance with water, especially in bathtubs, and the spiny things that live in the ocean are about as far from cute and endearing as you can get. As a matter of fact, sea urchins are one of the reasons I abandoned a youthful flirtation with skin diving. I realized one day, a few feet below the surface of Long Island Sound, that I was afraid of urchins, crabs, sharks, jellyfish, stingrays, eels, most other kinds of fish and, in fact, darn near everything down there. I didn’t even trust the shellfish, who, I suspected, harbored deep and justifiable resentment about Unlimited Fried Clams Night at the local Howard Johnson’s.
Although we use “urchin” today to mean either a poor ragged street child or that sea critter that looks like a golf ball with spikes, neither sense is even close to the original meaning of the word. They’re also both quite different from some of the uses to which “urchin” has been put over the past seven centuries.
“Urchin” first appeared in English in the late 13th century with the spelling “irchin” (followed shortly thereafter by “hurcheon” and other variants). The word had been filtered through several other European languages, but the root of all the forms was the Latin “ericius,” which meant “hedgehog.” Hedgehogs are common in Europe, Africa and Asia, but are not native to North America, so a brief primer is probably advisable. They are small, spiny mammals covered with quills, which they use to defend themselves when threatened by rolling themselves into a tight ball so the quills point outward. They cannot, however, throw their quills as porcupines can.
[Note: That sentence, as many readers have pointed out, is inaccurate. Porcupines cannot throw their quills (see Snopes on the topic). I am now wondering what other lies about the natural world I absorbed from Looney Tunes.]
The first use of “urchin” in English was to mean, logically, “hedgehog,” but soon the word was also applied to people with “prickly” personalities. “Urchin” was also used to mean “hunchback,” “elf or goblin” (because elves were said to take the form of a hedgehog on occasion), a woman considered old and unattractive, a woman considered too attractive and thus probably “loose,” or a small child of a mischievous or bratty bent. Most of these uses were based on either a perceived physical resemblance to a hedgehog (as in the case of a hunchback or old woman) or some metaphorical connection to a hedgehog’s behavior. Those spiny sea urchins have been so called since the early 17th century. The use of “urchin” to mean “small child” or “infant” appeared in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that our modern sense of “poor street child” became the dominant usage.