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The Late Latin word is generally thought to originate from an Afro-Asiatic language, but every proposed source word has presented problems. Many references refer to "Berber" (Kabyle) kaddîska, 'wildcat', and Nubian kadīs as possible sources or cognates, but M. Lionel Bender suggests the Nubian term is a loan from Arabic قِطَّة qiṭṭa. Jean-Paul Savignac suggests the Latin word is from an Ancient Egyptian precursor of Coptic ϣⲁⲩ šau, 'tomcat', or its feminine form suffixed with -t, but John Huehnergard says "the source [. . . ] was clearly not Egyptian itself, where no analogous form is attested. " Huehnergard opines it is "equally likely that the forms might derive from an ancient Germanic word, imported into Latin and thence to Greek and to Syriac and Arabic". Guus Kroonen also considers the word to be native to Germanic (due to morphological alternations) and Northern Europe, and suggests that it might ultimately be borrowed from Uralic, cf. Northern Sami gáđfi, 'female stoat', and Hungarian hölgy, 'stoat'; from Proto-Uralic *käďwä, 'female (of a furred animal)'. In any case, cat is a classic example of a word that has spread as a loanword among numerous languages and cultures: a Wanderwort.

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