Hedgehogs, Urchins, and Beatles

Hedgehogs are cute, aren’t they? With their little spines, and their noses, and their pink bellies when they’re being subjected to the 15th take of a video their owner’s making of them having a bath in the hopes it goes viral.

And they have a cute name too. It’s fun to say. I’m not sure at which point I ever really considered what the name actually means, but once I did I saw immediately how simple it is. They live in hedges, and their cute little noses look like those of pigs, or hogs. They’re hogs of the hedges: hedgehogs.

The French for hedgehog is hérisson. I heard someone say it recently, probably in relation to a viral video of a hedgehog having a bath. I then thought, That sounds a lot like the surname Harrison. Surely though, that’s just a coincidence: hedgehog can’t be a surname. Harrison undoubtedly means Harry’s son.

But… what if it was true? What if the surname (and occasional first name) Harrison does come from some Old French word for hedgehog!? Maybe it was first given to one eccentric villager somewhere deep in the Juras who had a notable penchant for hedgehogs. Or it was given as punishment to someone with spiky hair, which was just too much for mediveal French peasants to deal with.

My god, if it were true… Would we ever be able to look at the world the same way again, with this information? Could we ever go back to the way things were, knowing that we were listening to George Hedgehog, or watching Hedgehog Ford tell someone to get off his damn plane!? I had to know the truth, so this morning I’ve looked it up. And…

… of course Harrison mean’s Harry’s son. It was never remotely likely that it could be related to hedgehogs. Still though, for a few moments there, we all hoped.

But, the word hérisson is still interesting. It’s derived from the Latin word ericius, also simply meaning hedgehog. Going further back, ericius is from the Proto-Indo-European root ghers-, meaning to bristle. In the 16th century, people seem to have gone a little hedgehog crazy (probably from wandering minstrels travelling from town to town, re-enacting instances of hedgehogs having baths that they’d seen). The word hedgehog had been around since the previous century, but more French-sounding versions of the word still lingered on here and there throughout Britain. One of these, urchin, began to be applied to raggedly-dressed and dirty children, who apparently resembled hedgehogs, though they usually seem quite neat and tidy to me. Hedgehogs that is, not children. This word became more common in the late 18th century, and of course is still occasionally heard today as street urchin.

And of course there are sea urchins, so-named because their prickly appearance resembles that of a hedgehog. Sea urchin therefore basically means sea hedgehog. Sea Harrison though, sadly, doesn’t mean anything.

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