Saturday, 18 September 2021

Cats, polecats and good ideas

 Here on the east coast of Australia we still have a native predator called a quoll.

They're not very common but they can be found in remote areas in east Gippsland and on the edges of the Snowies.

In the nineteenth century the early settlers sometimes called them native cats, just in the same way wombats were sometimes called native badgers - due to wombats excavating large burrows like badger setts than any physical resemblance.

But quolls?

Well they don't really look like cats, more like European polecats.

European polecats are also pretty rare these days, but when I worked at the Field Centre in mid Wales, there was a guy trying to work out how many were left, and he had a couple in a cage that had been hit by cars.

So not only have I seen the pictures, I've seen live polecats and can confirm that they really do have a marked odour.

So, were the early settlers thinking about polecats when they called quolls native cats?

The answer's probably unknowable, but if we had more references to native polecats in the first have of the nineteenth century and more to native cats in the latter half we could say maybe with some justification.

So, using Tim Sherrat's querypic to search for the phrase native polecat what do we see?

Looks promising, with the phrase being more common earlier on.

But if we search for native cat we see something similar

which is not quite what  I expected. In fact if you graph the two queries together you find that native cat has always been a much more common usage

so, it was a good idea, but one that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Incidentally if you graph native cat against quoll you see something quite similar

with the phrase native cat predominating over quoll.

The Trove corpus of digitised newspapers only goes as far as 1950, so this means that the name quoll only came into common use sometime after 1950, which is exactly what you would expect, given that it was not until the 1960's that David Fleay campaigned successfully for the name quoll to be used in place of the older colonial name of native cat ...

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