Q: I’m wondering about the use of the expression “don’t badger me” to mean don’t bother me, a usage that may have a different connotation in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers.
A: As you may suspect, the verb “badger,” meaning to pester, comes from the noun “badger,” for the mammal that’s fierce when attacked. The pestering sense of the verb is probably derived from the human baiting of badgers as a blood sport.
The European badger (Meles meles) was common in Anglo-Saxon England, but it wasn’t called a “badger” until the early Modern English of the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
In Old English and Middle English, the word for the animal was a term of Celtic origin, spelled broc, brok, brock, etc. (In The Tale of Mr. Tod, a children’s book by Beatrix Potter, a badger named Tommy Brock is the arch enemy of Mr. Tod, a fox.)
So how did the animal come to be called a “badger”? The OED says the name probably comes the noun “badge” and is “so called with reference to the white mark borne like a badge on its forehead.” The word “badge” originally referred to a heraldic symbol worn to identify a knight and his retainers.
The earliest OED citation for the noun “badger,” which we’ve expanded, refers to the “propertyes … of a bauson or a badger” and cites “a whyte rase [slash] or a ball in the foreheed.” (From The Book of Husbandry, 1523, by John Fitzherbert.) The word “bauson” is an archaic, French-inspired term for a badger.
The verb appeared more than two and a half centuries later. The dictionary defines it as “to bait, hound; to subject to persistent harassment or persecution; to pester, bother.”
The OED says the meaning is “probably with allusion to baiting or drawing of badgers by humans,” though it notes “the supposed tenacity of a badger in biting until its teeth met.”
The dictionary’s first citation for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from a critical description of the Académie Française, the official authority on the French language:
“Paris is the only place where it can support any kind of consequence; though, even there, sorely badgered by the wits of the capital, who, expecting neither favour nor friendship, point all their epigrammatical batteries against their members.” (From Paris in Miniature, 1782, Joseph P. Macmahon’s translation of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris.)
The OED includes a mid-19th-century naturalist’s explanation of the verb: “A ‘brock’ … led such a persecuted life, that to ‘badger’ a man came to be the strongest possible term for irritating, persecuting, and injuring him in every way.” (From Sketches and Anecdotes of Animal Life, 1855, by the Rev. John George Wood.)
We’ll end with a picture of Bucky the Badger, the fierce-faced mascot of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Badgers: