• critter •
Pronunciation: kri-dêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A jocular name for any animal or insect. 2. An affectionate term for a person.
Notes: Like curtsy from courtesy, today's Good Word has earned a place for itself in every English dictionary. Its meaning has wandered away sufficiently from that of creature, its origin, to justify a separate entry.
In Play: We usually think of critters as farm animals or pets; however, this term covers animals in the wild: "The Pittsburgh Airport once applied lion and tiger poop from the zoo to its runways to keep large critters like bears and deer out of the flight paths of planes." Critters do not have to be large: "When Sally crawled into bed, she found tiny critters in it that looked suspiciously like bedbugs."
Word History: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first publication of this word was in 1814, but Shakespeare would have been familiar with this pronunciation of creature. 17th-century English had not assimilated this word to the point that that the T was pronounced [ch]. So critter started out as the correct pronunciation of creature, remaining in the language after the pronunciation of that spelling changed. Creature is a child of the verb create. This word was based on the past participle, creatus, of the verb creare "to create". This verb is based on the PIE stem ker- "grow", which is also responsible for English grow. It turns up again in Latin as crescere "to arise, be born, grow", which underlies Latin luna crescens "waxing (growing) moon". We borrowed the Italian variant of the same word in crescendo, a growth in the volume of music. (We have Rosemary Matthews to thank for this lovely lexical critter, today's fascinating Good Word.)