A WORD IN THE HAND: SQUIRRELY
Squirrely carry-on about a smart arse is just plane nuts
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
It has been eight months since squirrels last made world headlines.
They had a lot of press in February – one almost lost its tail when it ran across the racetrack in front of snowboarder Daniela Ulbing at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics; another prompted hilarious variations of President Ramaphosa’s first name when it appeared on the red carpet before his first State of the Nation Address – but since then squirrels have kept a pretty low profile, except for the incident in August when a German man had to be rescued by police, but since the squirrel pursuing him was only a baby it doesn’t really count.
This week, however, they are back in the news with a vengeance. First the Benin Football Federation said they want to change the longstanding pet name of the national team from Les Écureuils (the squirrels) to something more aggressive. The reasoning seems to be that an association with a more formidable animal, like a fox or a ferret, might give the underperforming players a boost.
Hard on the tail of that devastating announcement followed the report of a woman removed from a Frontier Airlines plane in Orlando because her carry-on baggage contained a live squirrel. Had it been a dead squirrel it might have qualified as carrion, but US regulations do not embrace flying squirrels, even though the woman claimed it was an “emotional support animal”.
Had she squirreled her furry therapist away a bit better she might have got away with it, but clearly the sight of its bright eyes and bushy tail made the other passengers a bit squirrely. Perhaps they were afraid it would eat their complimentary nuts.
Both the ambitious Beninese soccer administrators and the unbending American airline officials failed to take into account the origins of the word “squirrel”. The French écureuil and the English squirrel are descendants of the Greek skiouros, which the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us is a combination of shadow (skia) and tail (oura – which, incidentally, is also where the colloquial “arse” comes from).
The squirrel, therefore, is an animal that throws shade with its tail. Given the modern definition of throwing shade – to deliver a mortal insult – you’d think the Beninese footballers would be delighted to be associated with squirrels and the Frontier Airlines staff might be a bit more careful about who they get squirrely with.
Squirrely is the most interesting word in this debate, if you ask me. First used in about 1912, it has several meanings, from “full of squirrels” (as in “the Company’s Garden in Cape Town is quite squirrely”) to squirrel-like behaviour, which can range from someone who acts in a restless, nervous manner to someone who is totally nuts.
Get Squirrely was the name of a 2015 animated film loosely based on Ocean’s Eleven but with small animals instead of George Clooney and ... I don’t know, some other guys. You may not have heard of Get Squirrely because when it was eventually released in 2016 it was under the revamped name A.C.O.R.N.S.: Operation Crackdown. A change of name did not help the film’s fortunes, however (Benin, take note). It remained in cinemas for roughly the same amount of time it takes for a pair of stewardesses to eject a squirrel-carrying passenger from her seat.
There is one very good thing about bad films, however. They provide some of the most entertaining audience reviews. Those who commented on the movie almost known as Get Squirrely on the Internet Movie Database were unanimous in their verdict – it was terrible – but the best observation was from a reviewer called imabaldcupcake, who calmly pointed out: “The squirrel and the snake had boobs.”
If you were looking for a clear, concise example of what it really means to be completely squirrely, there it is.