catkin

In botany’s catechism, catercorner from the cactus is the catkin. It may seem a petty distinction – you want to pet the one and distinctly not the other – but they are as thoroughly unalike as anyone would like.

What is a catkin? For one, the little tip on a pussywillow. One may be tempted to think that they also appear on cattails, but that would be a bulrush to judgment; a catkin is really a petalless flower cluster on a tree, and while some catkins (we’ll allow the willow’s) are as small and fluffy as bunny butts, others (as on the hazel) are long, droopy, fuzzy phalluses. Still others come as hard cones – as seen on hops.

For me, catkin is one of the most endearing botanical terms. It doesn’t hurt that I love cats (though allergy keeps me from keeping one), but the word itself is charming – its cross-phylum assimilation, its crisp stops with cross-syllable assimilation (check and see if you ever really say the [t] or just always hold the second [k] a bit longer), its forward-moving vowels, and that cute suffix –kin. Other –kins are akin, but not all so kittenish: bodkin, firkinnapkin, jerkin, pumpkin, gherkin

What is this word catkin, and whence comes it? We got it from Dutch katteken, anglicized by a man named Henry Lyte in his translation of a botany book by Rembert Dodoens in 1578. What is katteken? Cognate with German Kätzchen, and meaning the same two things: (1) catkin (thanks to Dodoens) and (2) kitten. English has the pair, so we can distinguish; kitten is related to French chaton, which also now means ‘catkin’ along with its original ‘feline youngling’.

These other languages use the same word for both things, which makes the connection clear but disallows the nice distinction. Our voracious, promiscuous borrowing makes it plain that, between pettable plants and newly planted pets, there’s more than one way to kin a cat.

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