Bat, bat, come under my hat
and I’ll give you a piece of bacon …
English nursery rhyme
Thank the Vikings. The fearsome Norsemen who terrified, raided and eventually settled parts of England apparently gave us the Swedish bakka and Danish baake, words that the centuries turned into the English “bat.” But the old Scandinavian words mean “bacon.” What’s going on here?
Bats and bacon are entwined as well in parts of Germany, where the word for bat is Speckmaus, literally “bacon mouse.” This has nothing to do with bats as a side dish for eggs. Rather, I believe, it traces to the way flitches (sides) of bacon were hung on hooks from the ceiling of smokehouses. Bats hanging upside down in a roost likely looked somewhat similar.
All this is probably a good thing: “Bat” displaced the Anglo-Saxon word hre?rmus, or “moving mouse,” which still occurs spasmodically in some dialects as “rearmouse” and “reremouse,” along with “airymouse” and “flittermouse.”
Few creatures have such an undeservedly poor reputation as bats, but when and where are the roots of this fear and loathing? Linguistics may offer some clues. The etymology of words (their origin and evolution across centuries) can give us powerful hints about people’s attitudes toward whatever the words identify. I have explored the history of European names for bats, the targets of so much destructive myth and misinformation. I hoped to determine historic attitudes toward bats – whether the words might involve cultural taboos of some kind.
Some European languages – Italian, for example – have many dialectal words for bat and it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of them. Most European languages, however, have just one standard word plus a few lesser-known words confined to local dialects.
In the vast majority of cases, European words for bat are purely descriptive, rather than pejorative, and have a clear etymology. Standard European words applied to bats often evoke leather (as in bat wings), hand- or foot-wings and night or evening flight. And though unrelated to rodents, bats’ small and furry appearance leads to frequent references to mice. In Russian, for instance, letuchaya mysh simply translates as “flying mouse.”
Whether a word should be considered a taboo word is open to debate. But typical definitions of taboo stress elements of fear, danger or prohibition. “Flying mouse” doesn’t seem to fall into that category. It seems to me purely descriptive. Support for this conclusion comes from Chinese, where words for bat in various dialects typically translate as “flying mouse,” “earth mouse,” “sky mouse” or “night swallow.” These descriptive terms are roughly equivalent to the Russian and other European words for bat, and China has a long tradition of perceiving bats in a highly positive light.
I do not believe any of the words for bat in the languages of Europe, where the etymology is clear, carry a hint of “taboo.” They are invariably descriptive, at least visually.
Taboo connotations have, however, been suggested for a few bat terms of less-certain etymology. The Hungarian denevér, for instance, is of unknown origin, although suggestions that it might trace to Greek words such as lidére (“goblin”) are clearly incorrect. It is tempting to see vér, the Hungarian word for “blood,” at the end of denevér, but evidence is almost nonexistent.
Given that other common Hungarian words for bat – such as “leather mouse,” “leather bird” and “winged mouse” – are transparently descriptive words of clear etymology, I see no reason to link any taboos to denevér.
The word “taboo” is often mentioned with respect to the etymology of some European bat words of uncertain origin, especially for the Slavic netopyr. The word has defied clear explanation of its origin, although it seems to have been the original word for bat in all Slavic languages. I believe the correct etymology begins with the Indo-European nekwt- (“night”), plus per- (“to move”), resulting in “the one that goes by night.” I find no real evidence of a taboo origin.
In short, virtually all words for bat in the languages of Europe grew from descriptive roots. And there is nothing fearsome, frightening or harmful about the 40 bat species found in Europe that might generate a sense of taboo.
Perhaps the most persistent and damaging taboo associated with bats is the vampire myth. Vampire bats do, indeed, exist, but they total just three species (out of more than 1,100 bat species worldwide). They live only in Latin America and feed primarily on birds (two of the vampire species) or mammals, especially livestock.
Vampire bats have never been found in Europe, and it is not clear when news of the New World vampires reached Europe. Some say the early explorers of the Americas brought news of these bats back to the Old World in the 1550s, while others doubt that word of their existence reached The Continent until the early 19th century.
In either case, the fact remains that the vampires of folklore have nothing to do with bats. Vampires were described in legend as dead humans with the ability to rise from the grave, always at night. They appeared sometimes in the guise of an animal, usually a wolf, and sometimes they were invisible. They were never in the form of a bat. These revenants, as they are properly termed, supposedly cause all sorts of trouble and strife; they have been blamed for illness, epidemics, plague and pestilence.
While some vampires of folklore suck blood from their victims, many do not, which immediately differentiates them from the vampires of literature, where blood sucking is a sine qua non. Folklore’s vampires bite at the chest, while fiction’s vampires go for the neck.
Although bats have been linked to the mysterious and magical for centuries, their association with vampires is the result of an Irish writer. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was published in London in 1897. The villain of the piece is one Count Dracula, based on the disreputable Prince Vlad of Transylvania. Dracula apparently was Vlad’s nickname, meaning something on the order of “devil.”
Stoker created his Dracula as a vampire, thus giving rise to the vampire of fiction (with so little in common with those of folklore). Stoker seems to have been the first to depict a vampire as taking the appearance of a bat. Stoker may have been influenced by the vampire bats of Latin America, since their existence was well known in Europe by that time.
The first of many movies based on Stoker’s Dracula was made in Germany in 1922. Called Nosferatu and directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, it is arguably the most influential horror film ever made. The bad guys of Murnau’s movie are not bats but rats. Hollywood took over in 1931, with the movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Here, the connection between bats and vampires was cemented, and it has remained so ever since. Such is the power of Hollywood.
The word “vampire” is almost certainly of Slavic origin, probably from the Old Slavic word o,pyr, meaning “spectre.” It became vampir when it moved into Western European languages, and returned to Slavic in that form. The true Slavic word for vampire, volkodlak, means “a person in the guise of a wolf.”
The damaging links between the bats and vampires are clearly very recent and without basis in folklore. Bram Stoker’s contribution did a disservice to both bats and vampires. With little historic or folkloric basis for a fear of bats, this fictional link with vampires may well be a key source of the still-frequent revulsion for these gentle mammals.
I am grateful to Biology Professor Brock Fenton of the University of Western Ontario for his help on bats in general. I drew heavily on Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1990) for insight into the folklore.
Here’s an abbreviated list of the “standard” words for bat in various European languages. The translations are literal and based on the etymology of the native word. (Some words of uncertain origin are omitted here and discussed in the accompanying article.)
Greek: the night one
Latin: the little evening one
Latvian: leather wing
Breton: blind mouse; skin wing
Gaelic: evening mouse
Irish: leather wing
Welsh: a flitch of bacon
Hungarian: leather mouse; winged mouse
Estonian: leather mouse
Finnish: the fluttering one; wing-footed one
Ingrian, Karelian, Votian: night flutterer
Livonian: leather wing
Danish, Dutch, Flemish, German, Norwegian,
Swedish, Yiddish: flutter mouse
English: moving mouse; air mouse;
Icelandic: leather rag
Catalan: feathered mouse; blind mouse
French: bald mouse (or possibly owl mouse)
Italian: little evening one; hand wing
Portuguese: blind mouse
Rhaeto-Romanic: night flyer
Spanish: blind mouse
Russian: flying mouse; the leather one
Ukrainian: the leather one
Bulgarian: the one who sticks, adheres to
Croatian, Serbian: blind mouse
Albanian: naked owl
Basque: old mouse