Glutton: A wolverine by any other name

How Robert Goulet, the Virgin Queene and Benjamin Franklin converge

Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002

With 65 percent of Americans now qualifying as tubs-o'-lard, gluttony seems to have become less a deadly sin than a national goal.

The Last Word by Fern Chandonnet He can be reached at

And it's with this national unity of purpose in mind that we take it upon ourselves to investigate the origins of that gorgeous word, "glutton."

I love gluttons (as they are known in Europe, though not here). Gluttons, healthy ones, can be wonderfully fat and hairy. They do smell bad, of course (though perhaps not to other gluttons), and though that idiosyncrasy is often attributed to the quantities of awful food they eat, the stench, I'm told, is more a matter of genetic predisposition. It's what gluttons are - they and their entire family - that is, odoriferous.

The word glutton is extracted from the French "glouton," meaning the same, which in turn evolved from the Latin "gula," meaning gullet.

(All language is awesomely connected, isn't it? Consider that "gullet" in French is "goulet" and you begin to understand why the crooner, Robert, didn't translate it.)

Some etymologists vouch that glutton is a translation of the German "Vielfrass," meaning glutton. But I doubt it. Germans, in my experience, do not have a strongly developed sense of gluttony. The French, in fact, swear that the "boches" do not distinguish between gluttony and eating at all - offering as irrefutable proof that epitome of German eats, the Schnitzel.

(Some argue, by the way, that "boche," the French word intermittently used to signify a German, derives from "boschvark," the Afrikaans word for "bush pig." But I'm not entirely sure this is valid. In fact, in my view, the French are decidedly prejudiced when it comes to the "boches.")

In North America, the animal we've been talking about - that is, the glutton - is called a "wolverine." Its Latin name, Gulo gulo, not only echoes certain of my opening statements but lives on in other forms, as in the following - completely imaginary - scenario:

A high tea somewhere in a London suburb.

Hostess: Isn't that young Charles rushing to the sideboard, there?

Matron: Indeed. He seems rather in a hurry.

Charles is seen to be stuffing his mouth with various viands and hors d'oeuvres and then begins to fill the pockets of his tweed jacket.

Hostess: He seems rather afflicted with "gulosity," don't you think?

Matron: I should say.

Hostess: Be a love, Hermione. Trot on over there and cosh him with a marrow, won't you? There's a good girl.

(A word of caution: Avoid coshing - or bashing - anyone with a marrow BONE. The word "marrow," in the Queen's English, actually means "zucchini," an inedible Italian vegetable grown mainly as ground cover.)

You would think that the diminutive, "ine", at the terminus of "wolverine" would signify diminution, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be wrong (and, may I say, presumptuous even to consider that you can have the last word). I think "ette" would be more appropriate to identify that circumstance. I mean, it's "majorette," isn't it - that is, a tiny major in a short skirt. There is no such thing as a "majorine," and no one has ever heard, after all, of a "wolverette."

No, we must to England - where the wolverine, amazingly, is now called glutton - to find the "wolverine" ancestor. Why the Brits should invent the word "wolverine" and revert later to "glutton" is no more to be explained than is their cuisine, of course. (Interestingly, some gourmands - that is, gluttons with an education - aver that the scarcity of fat Britons may be laid at the door of British cuisine. Their case is a strong one: Cold roast meat and larded puddings go only so far.)

The wolverine made its first appearance in print in 1574. An Elizabethan document (cited in that ne plus ultra of sources, the Oxford English Dictionary) illustrates thus: "Furres of woolveringes for pedlers capps."

During the era of that (extra) Virgin Queene, Elizabeth I, no one was given added credit for spelling.

Even the Brits shy from making the definitive pronouncement on the "woolveringes" formation. But I'm not afflicted with shyness, and would wager that the word derives from "wolver," - a nasty creature, wolf-like - and the suffix "ing," as in stripling or sapling or yearling, that is, signifying "young."

Curiously, the people of Michigan - sports figures and lesser inhabitants alike - call themselves "wolverines." I say "curious" because there is no solid scientific evidence that they manifest the beast's characteristics. Michiganders (it gets curiouser and curiouser when you consider that there are no Michigeese) are neither fatter nor hairier than, say, the people of North Dakota - or even Ohio. And neither has it been conclusively proved that Michiganders - as a group - are malodorous.

Finally, having thus sung the praises of the glutton - or wolverine - I would like to offer a modest proposal: that the glutton be named the national mascot. Consider how impressive a large specimen of Gulo gulo would look peering from the presidential insignia as the national leader makes his announcements about compassionate this and that, pre-emptive war and corporate tax breaks. I feel the symbol would more fairly represent the national mood than does that twit of a bald-headed, fish-eating bird which, it will be remembered, the turkey-loving Founding Father Benjamin Franklin - himself a legendary trencherman - so wonderfully disdained.

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