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Word origins: the animal kingdom

Updated: 6 days ago

This is the first in a series of "Word-Nerd" episodes - podcast and blog. You can listen to the podcast here.

In future episodes we’ll deal with some word-stories behind such things as:

·       food and drink

·       place names

·       numbers

·       names of professions and occupations (which often became surnames)

·       some strange plurals

·       Et cetera...

But to kick off the series, let’s take a look at:

The Animal Kingdom

Last time we looked at how English has developed into its modern-day form from an amalgam of other languages, and I said that we’d continue the series by putting some flesh on the bones…

It’s hard to know where to start with the detail, because if you look hard enough, almost every word in the language could have something to say about it. So, how about a few broad categories, with a look inside at some of the most interesting etymologies?



There are several theories about the origin of “bear”. Either way the word is ancient enough to go right back to the time of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which makes it difficult to trace.

·       The first theory: it was simply the word for "brown", so that "bear" would mean "the brown one"

·       Alternatively, it was derived from the word for “wild”, so that "bear" would mean "the wild one".

In a sense, the precise etymology of the word is less interesting than the story behind it, which both of these first two versions have in common: In those days, there was often a taboo avoidance of calling a spade a spade; in this case, calling the most feared wild animal by its actual name, in case this caused it to appear – with the result that, frustratingly, we don’t now know what that name was!

This second theory is favoured by the American author Ralph Keyes. If the word-story is true, says Keyes, then it is the oldest known euphemism, and he should know: his book Unmentionables: From Family Jewels to Friendly Fire, What We Say Instead of What We Mean, deals with the history of euphemism in human speech. (I highly recommend this book – it’s probably the most entertaining reference book on my shelf)

·       Other etymologists link the Germanic word bear (German: Bär / Swedish: Björn, etc.) to the Latin ferus, meaning wild.


So much for the ancient history, what about modern usage?

When stockbrokers talk about a bear market, they mean that values are suffering a period of sustained decline. The expression comes from the proverb about not selling your bearskin until you’ve skinned your bear. Once again there is an alternative explanation for the origin of the phrase: that bears swipe their paws downwards when attacking, thus demonstrating the direction of the market. I prefer the first version.

The inverse of this is the bull market, where prices are steadily rising. Buy! Buy!


Boa constrictor

There is not much to say about the etymology of this English word, partly because it is pure Latin! This, however, is what makes it remarkable: Apart from the well-extinct tyrannosaurus rex, the boa constrictor is the only species of animal to be known by its full Latin name – genus and species.

NB The gorilla doesn’t count because this is just the genus, not the species.


Dog (canary Islands)

There are remarkably few words in the English language that have no obvious etymological history. One such is “dog”. 

There is a single reference to the Old English word “docga”, and appears to be in reference to a single breed of hunting dog. This wouldn’t normally be enough to make a case. Ask Susie Dent: for a new word to make it into the OED, there has to be proof of usage by plenty of different people on enough occasions. Apologies, “plenty” and “enough” are not very scholarly ways of presenting a statistic, but the point is that if the word had only ever been used on one occasion, that wouldn’t cut it.

The Spanish word for bulldog is “dogo”, which can’t be a coincidence, but I can find no reference to this in any of the etymological dictionaries that I have been scouring in research of this piece.


This is a dog

Still in Spanish territory: Canary Islands.

You might have thought that the islands were named for the bright yellow birds that are found there, but…

The name "Canariae Insulae" is linked to the Latin word "canis," meaning "dog." It is believed that the islands may have been named after large dogs that were present on the islands when they were first discovered by the ancient Romans.

Centuries later, when (north) European explorers used the islands as a staging post, they were delighted with the strikingly bright yellow birds they found there and named them after the islands on which they were first discovered. So, the bird was named long after the island was.



This magnificent animal is a (former) deer.

The deer is a very interesting animal for linguists, partly because all three of the native species in the British Isles have different words the female and male of the species and indeed for the young.


Red Deer:

Male: Stag (or formerly: hart)

Female: Hind

Young: Calf


Roe Deer:

Male: Buck

Female: Doe

Young: Kid


Fallow Deer:

Male: Buck

Female: Doe

Young: Fawn


The German word for “animal” is…

Anybody? Anybody?

That’s right: das Tier (neuter word)

NB This crops up in some useful compound words, so even if you’re not a student of German, can you guess what these might mean?

das Haustier / das Wildtier / das Wassertier / das Lasttier / der Tierarzt

Sorry, this is supposed to be an English episode, not German. The point of this little digression is simply to make the point that the German word for animal sounds suspiciously like the English word “deer”.

There are sometimes coincidences in word origins, but this is not one of them. In Middle English, “deer” meant any kind of medium-sized mammal – hare, badger, fox, or indeed deer – but if you go further back to Old English, it could be applied to anything that breathed.

So, the next time you’re out in the countryside and you see a mouse, or a squirrel, or a horse, you can say: “Oh look, there’s a deer!” and explain to your confused friends what you mean.



Mistle thrush

Although "mistel" is an old English word for poo, (modern German still has "Mist" for dung/manure - which once made playing tennis at a posh German club a bit embarrassing for me!), the mistle thrush was named for its fondness for mistletoe berries, so only indirectly linked to excrement. Fittingly however, the Latin name for thrush is turdus. I believe this one is a coincidence.



There are hundreds of Arabic words that found their way into Spanish and a proportion of them continued the journey into English. Coffee, mattress, admiral, hazard, and most words that start with al--, such as alcohol and algebra… but not alligator. This comes from the Spanish for lizard, “lagarto”.

Giraffe, however, is ultimately from the Arabic word zarāfa, meaning fast walker.



I think that the etymology of this surprisingly dangerous pachyderm is quite well-known: A "Hippopotamus" literally means “river horse”, as it comes from the Greek words "hippos" (horse) and "potamos" (river).

While we’re here, however, I can’t resist talking about the close relation: "hippocampus", which has a fascinating etymology with roots in ancient mythology.

We have just learnt that "hippos" is the Greek word for "horse," now we have "kampos", which means "sea monster" or "caterpillar." The Greek kampos should not be confused with the Latin “campus”, meaning field.

If you combine hippos with kampos, then you get the mythological creature – part horse, part sea-serpent, which pulled Poseidon’s chariot. If you had only ever seen depictions of these creatures – “sea horses”, which were painted as big as actual horses, then you might have felt a bit cheated the first time you saw one in real life. They’re tiny!

And lastly on this point: if you know anything about human anatomy and/or psychology, the word hippocampus might have rung a bell for another reason. It is the part of the brain associated with memory formation, and it is so-called because it physically resembles a seahorse.


The Duck-billed Platypus

The duck-billed platypus is the most puzzling of all creatures from an anatomical point of view: it lays eggs, which, for a mammal, is extremely rare, and produces its own venom, which is unique. It also has a bill and webbed-feet, like a duck, all of which make it a biological oddity.

Its name however is quite simple, coming from the Greek words "platys" (flat) and "pous" (foot).



This bird has a white head


There are very few words that made it into English from Welsh. Bard, corgi, and flannel are a few that are worth noting. And then we have “penguin”.

Penguin is made up of the two Welsh words:

Pen” = head

Gwyn” = white

As you can see from the picture, it is an apparent misnomer. The word originally referred to the now extinct great auk, which did have a white head.



"Panda" comes from the Nepali word "ponya," which referred to any bamboo-eating animals. The word was later adopted into English to refer specifically to the giant panda.



This list is arranged alphabetically, but we’re finishing on the one that I consider to be the most fascinating of all.

"Squirrel" comes from the Greek word "skiouros," where "skia" means shadow and "oura" means tail, reflecting the squirrel's habit of sitting in the shadow of its own tail. It’s not a huge leap to get from skiouros to squirrel, and the Frenchification of the word makes it “écureuil”. So that could be the end of the story. However…

In other Germanic languages, squirrel is known as a little acorn-eater:

German: Eichhörnchen (Eichel = acorn) / Afrikaans: eekhoring / Dutch: eekhoorn / etc.


I remember when I first came across the Swedish word for squirrel, which is “ekorre”. My first instinct was to assume that it was a corruption of the French word “écureuil”, as it sounds pretty close, but this is in fact an evolution of the Germanic word. Just look at how similar they are! You could be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of link in the chain, but in fact they represent two distinct word-journeys.


False etymology


There’s an urban legend that the word kangaroo is from an Aboriginal phrase that means, “I don’t know”, from when a settler asked a local “What’s that?” pointing to a large, hoppy animal. This story is unfortunately not true. The actual derivation is rather more prosaic: it is from an Aborigine tribe (Guugu Yimithirr)’s word for a particular species of kangaroo, gangurru.



One of the things that makes English so rich is that we have borrowed words from so many sources. OK, “borrow” is the great linguistic euphemism: we have no intention of giving them back, so we should really just say “stolen”. Anyway, look at how the adjective we use to mean pertaining to a certain animal differs from the name of the animal itself. Most of us are well aware of the common ones, such as canine and feline, but there are plenty of other interesting ones to add to your active vocabulary:


Words of Greek origin

Arachnid: Relating to spiders.

Canid: Relating to the dog family, including wolves and foxes.

Cetacean: Relating to whales and dolphins.

Chiropteran: Relating to bats. (Hand – wing)

Lepidopteran: Relating to butterflies and moths. (Scaly wing)

Simian: Relating to primates.


Words of Latin origin

Avian: Relating to birds.

Bovine: Relating to cattle or cows.

Canine: Relating to dogs.

Equine: Relating to horses.

Feline: Relating to cats.

Porcine: Relating to pigs.

Ursine: Relating to bears.

Andrew Wenger is the founder/director of SameSky Languages, where you can learn French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and English as a Foreign Language. Please make contact here if you would like to find out about joining a group to learn one of these. Individual lessons are also available.

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