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TWTS: Badgered badgers badger

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Badgers know how to mind their own business. They live underground, they’re nocturnal, and they generally try to avoid us. Sure, badgers have giant scary claws that can shred your face off, but they won’t do that unless you give them a reason.

We’ve been thinking about these shy, much maligned mammals ever since we got this question from our listener Sherry Wells: “When did badgers become nags? I’m guessing they never harassed anyone for anything, so how did ‘badger’ come to mean harass?”

The answer to this question is an unfortunate one that involves animal cruelty. Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster Online connect the verb “badger” to a blood sport known as badger-baiting.

This now-illegal practice originated in Britain. Badgers were placed in artificial dens, and dogs were sent in to bait them into defending themselves. This brutal practice would often result in great injury to both animals.

The verb “badger” probably relates to the badger’s tenacity and ferocity in latching on to the attacking dog. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that “to badger” originally meant “to bait” or “attack by biting.”

Later on, “to badger” came to mean “to subject to persistent harassment,” or “to bother.” By the late 1700s, the meaning that many of us still use today shows up, “to annoy someone with repeated or irritating requests to do something.”

Curiously, the family of carnivorous mammals the badger belongs to contains two other animals that also have verbs. One is the weasel. Can you guess the other one?

Hint: It’s not a wolverine, and we think that’s a missed opportunity. Listen to the audio above for the answer.

Also, we'd be remiss not to include a link to this mesmerizing relic of the internet.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.