Printable Version
Pronunciation: kæt-êr-pi-lêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Wormlike footed larva of a butterfly or moth. 2. A bulldozer with an endless chain of metal plates stretching from the back to the front wheels. 3. (Rare) Plunderer, thief, extortioner, rapacious person.

Notes: The original caterpillar tractor was invented by Benjamin Holt in 1904 by adding tracks to his farm tractor already in production. Some thought the tractor with tracks looked like a caterpillar crawling so, in 1910 that name was registered as a trademark. In 1925 Holt's company merged with his strongest competitor, that of C. L. Best they decided that the company would be called Caterpillar Incorporated.

In Play: Caterpillars can be as ugly as the butterflies they become are beautiful: "The eastern tent caterpillar defoliates entire groves some springs." The third sense of this word emanates from that activity of caterpillars: "The caterpillars on the town council threatened to cut funding for Darren's committee if he didn't stop criticizing it." I captured my most enlightening experience with a caterpillar in a poem that may be found here.

Word History: Today's Good Word in late Middle English was catyrpel (1500s), catyrpyllar, catyrpiller (1600s-1700s), catterpiller and caterpillar (1800s on). It probably was an attempt at copying Old French chatepelose "caterpillar", literally "hairy cat", in the category of such literal misnomers as 'fuzzy bear', and 'lady finger'. The association with cats occurs in other European languages, such as Swiss German's Teufelkatz "caterpillar", literally "devil's cat". French chat "cat" derived from Late Latin cattus, passed down from PIE kat- "young animal", source also of Latin catulus "young animal", English cat, German Katz, Polish kot, Russian koška and kot "tomcat". (Now for a note of appreciation to Mike Nichols for spotting the interest in today's Good Word and sharing it with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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