I will be rounding off the first installment of the Dravidian loanword series with an animal familiar to most people, the mongoose. First, a look at the definition and etymology.


Definition of mongoose (in Merriam-Webster)

plural mongooses, also mongeese

: any of numerous long slender carnivorous mammals (family Herpestidae) chiefly of Africa and southern Europe and Asia that are usually ferret-sized agile mammals typically with non-retractile sharp claws, short legs, long tail, and usually brownish or grayish fur sometimes with bands or stripes

Etymology of mongoose (in Online Etymology Dictionary)

mongoose (n.)
“snake-killing ichneumon of India,” 1690s, perhaps via Portuguese, from an Indic language (such as Mahrathi mangus “mongoose”), probably ultimately from Dravidian (compare Telugu mangisu, Kanarese mungisi, Tamil mangus). The form of the English word altered by folk-etymology.

Despite their appearance, mongooses are not related to weasels and badgers (which are members of the suborder Caniformia, the dog-like Carnivorans). Instead, they are considered to be closer to civets and hyenas of the cat-like Feliformia. A total of 34 species are found across Africa and the southern half of Eurasia (a distribution reflective of their origins in and preference for warmer climes). Together they make up the family Herpestidae with 14 genera –   Atilax, Bdeogale, Crossarchus, Cynictis, Dologale, Galerella, Helogale, Herpestes, Ichneumia, Liberiictis, Mungos, Paracynictis, Rhynchogale and Suricata.

Out of these, only two genera are found in Asia – Herpestes and Ichneumia. The latter is represented by a single species, Ichneumia albicauda, the White Tailed Mongoose, the largest member of the family, which ranges over much of Africa and a tiny part of Arabia (the southern coast). It is the genus Herpestes to which the other mongooses of Asia belong. With ten species, this is the largest genus, all of which except one are Asian. South Asia is home to six of them – Herpestes edwardsii (Indian Grey Mongoose), Herpestes fuscus (Indian Brown Mongoose), Herpestes auropunctatus (Small Asian Mongoose), Herpestes smithii (Ruddy Mongoose), Herpestes urva (Crab-Eating Mongoose) and Herpestes vitticolis (Stripe-Necked Mongoose).

This abundance of mongooses in South Asia might be one of the reasons for the multiple references to them in South Asian literature and folklore. The most common ones revolve around the mongoose’s ability to take on poisonous snakes and kill them. It has a basis in fact, with species of the family Herpestidae being one of the few mammals immune to snake neurotoxins, thanks to mutations that render their acetylcholine receptor molecules resistant to venom. These receptor molecules are located on muscle cells and help mediate muscle relaxation and contraction. In species that do not have this particular mutation, the receptor molecules are blocked by the alpha-neurotoxin in snake venom. This leads to paralysis of muscles and eventual death. Not so for the mongooses.

While immunity to venom is crucial, the agility of mongooses is an equally important aspect of their killing prowess. They can overcome their reptilian prey by harrying them to the point of exhaustion. Approaching close enough to deliver a quick nip, they twist and turn at the last moment to get out of harm’s way. Venomous snakes are swift enough to deliver a lethal bite to most animals. But the lightning reflexes of herpestids are meant to overcome such attacks. In many parts of Asia, itinerant performers stage snake-mongoose fights for eager onlookers. Encounters between these mortal foes have become part of South Asian legends and epics. They even made their way into British colonial literature. One example is the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’.

The word mongoose seems to have Dravidian antecedents. Kannada and Telugu use the words ‘mungisi’ and ‘mangisu’, while Marathi has ‘mangus’. The latter, an Indo-Aryan language of the Deccan, is spoken in a region adjoining the Dravidian-speaking states of Karnataka and Telangana, and has been greatly influenced by them. Tamil has both ‘mangus’ and ‘kiri’ while Malayalam makes use of the latter. The South Asian ‘mangus’ has made its way into languages spoken across the world – Irish (mongus), English (mongoose), French (mangouste), Portuguese (mangusto), Spanish (mangosta), Dutch (mangoeste), German (manguste), Norwegian (mungo), Swedish (mungo), Finnish (mungo), Hungarian (monguz), Polish (mangusta), Ukrainian (manhust) and Russian (mangust).

Image Attribution: The image above is an illustration – A Mongus Attacking a Cobra, from ‘Hunting and Trapping Stories; A Book for Boys’ (1903), authored by J P Hyde Price and published by McLoughlin Bros. (New York). This particular copy has been preserved by The Library of Congress (USA) and digitized by Sloan Foundation.