May a cat look on a king? Perhaps a pussycat can be kin to a prince. Which prince? I’m inclined to think Albert of Monaco would be good… His mother was Grace Kelly, after all. But never mind her feline charms; the man’s a Grimaldi – that’s his dynastic family. So if a cat (especially an old cat (especially an old grey cat (especially an old grey female cat))) is a grimalkin, is that not kin of a Grimaldi?

Alas, no; the word resemblance is mere coincidence. But as we will see, a grimalkin is indeed relative to royalty – of a rather colder place.

I do like the sound and feel of grimalkin. Yes, it sounds like it could be the love child of John Malkovich and Ellen Barkin, but it also sounds like a word best said by Allan Rickman. But really it’s a nice word because it’s a word for a cat. It has that grim beginning, true, but perhaps it’s really just a fading grin as on a Cheshire cat. It has a sound like milk, too. And, honestly, the whole word grimalkin sounds to me more than a little like a cat purring as it licks itself clean – or just maybe like one of those quizzical little chirruping trill meows some cats make when they want you to follow them, probably to the kitchen, where their bowl sits empty, obviously some kind of mistake, why aren’t you filling it already, are you even paying attention? Grrrimmmmallkin?

In fact, it comes from grey plus malkin. No problem with the grey, a grand old word for the colour of my hair, with cognates in various languages. But what is malkin? It looks like a surname. But it’s actually a word used on its own for a scarecrow, a mop, or a girl who resembles one or the other or both. From the girl sense comes the cat sense. But the word itself began with the girl sense – Malkin is a pet form of a girl’s name. The kin is as in babykins, pussykins, et cetera: cognate with German chen as in Gretchen and many others. And the mal? From Maud, the name for which Malkin is a diminutive.

Maud, I should say, is itself a bit of a familiar form. It’s shortened from Matilda, which comes originally from Germanic roots for ‘might in battle’. The stop in the middle was dropped, and the /l/ was reduced as we see in folk and palm and sauce and faucon – sorry, we spell it falcon now in honour of its etymology and have repronounced it to match the spelling.

And where is the royalty? If you go to your wall-sized map of Antarctica that hangs above your bed, you will see an area of it called Queen Maud Land (although if you really have such a map, you surely know of Queen Maud Land already). Why is it called that? The Norwegians of the earlier 20th century named it after their queen. Why was a Norwegian Queen named Maud? Maud of Wales, in fact? Because she was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria – her father was Edward VII. She married a Dane and then they were invited to be the royalty of Norway, which they became in 1906.

So there we have it. No Mediterranean Riviera for this old grey cat, just Norway and Antarctica (and England and Wales). But that may still be enough glamour for this grimalkin.

One response to “grimalkin

  1. Stunning! I love it. Like playing three-handed whist with Lewis Carroll and the OED.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s