A couple of days, Haaretz's Word of the Day was Khatool, meaning "cat." I have no idea if the article's discussion of the word "cat" is at all accurate, linguistically speaking, but it's fun.
Every language of mankind has a word for cat and most are of striking similarity. in fact there seem to be two main groups, apparently stemming from two ancient roots. In fact, the words for cat are so alike that they could serve as an argument for the postulated Ur-language– the "monogenesis" theory that there was an ancient proto-tongue spoken by an early clan of humans, which fathered the nations of man around today.
As that clan scattered through the eons, with descendants slowly spreading around the globe, the theory says, their languages evolved.
Of course, we can never know if there was a single proto-language, but it is fun to postulate, and how else did so many peoples on the planet wind up with such similar words for cat?
The two roots, which seem to stretch back into eons long gone, are qat and mao. We can also give honorable mention to pusi.
The common Hebrew term for cat is, as said, khatool– see the khat? The formal Arabic is qot (or qet); the vernacular Arabic is biss (shades of puss!), and the English is – figure it out for yourself. The ancient Assyrians and the Asturians called it the qatoo.
Over the millennia the oo seems to have disappeared. Today's French has chat, German has katze, Greek has gata and Icelandic has kottur. Catalan settles for gat, like modern Arabic, and the Basque language that is said to be unique calls the noble animal the catua. [For another article on different cat names in European languages, see Etymon - cat].
Seeing a pattern here? Moving down to the African languages, we find katti in Nyanja, elkati in Zulu and pakka in Swahili.
As for the second root, some mainly Asian tongues seem to have derived their word for cat from the meow: the Sanskrit call the cat marjara, while Mandarin goes straight for mao. (There you thought you were saying of your kid, "He's the cat's meow," but all along you were saying, "He's the cat's communist dictator".)
Of course, where you have two peoples you have three opinions and somebody at some time evidently had an original mind. Gujaratis are among the minority that preserved neither the qat sound nor the musical meow, instead calling the cat biladi – the Hindi is billi. Tamils call it poonai. Go figure.
Gypsies call the cat muca, preserving the meow and the ca. Romanian and Samoan lean towards the pusi section of cat words.
The Japanese word for a generic cat is neko, also commonly known as yamaneko. Which brings us to the Iriomote-yamaneko, an exceptionally rare and primitive wildcat found on the remote island of Iriomote (sometimes also called yamamaya – there's that mao – which means "the cat in the mountain." Some call it yamapikarya – "that which shines on the mountain." Yeah.)
There's a problem with this idea when it comes to the Semitic languages. I can see how Hebrew khatool is related, in some fashion, to Arabic qot, although where did the ool part of the word come from? (Perhaps the oo is from Assyrian - but the l?). So how do we have shunra, in Aramaic? It's not related to any of the three basic words for cat in the world, at least according to this article.
When looking at the Wiktionary article on "cat" in Syriac, the mystery appears to be solved. The word for cat in Akkadian is shuranu, in Arabic it's sinnawr (this must be only one of the Arabic names for cat, because above the Arabic word for cat is qot or biss). (See also the entry in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon).