If you have read Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, you might know how the leopard got its spots. But do you know where animals got their names? Read on to find out…
English has famously made a habit of borrowing words from other languages. Even the word “animal” comes from the Latin word “anima”, which could be taken to mean “soul,” “breath,” or “life.” Go back long enough, and the Old English word for animal, deor, sounds remarkably similar to our modern word “deer”…. but instead of referring to a big stag with pointy antlers, was probably instead stolen from the german word for animal, ‘Tier!’ But what about individual animal names? Actually, there are some funny stories behind them too….
Stealing from Greek and Latin
Partly due to their prevalent use in science, and partially due to the common roots of languages, many animal names come from Greek and Latin. You probably know that Hippopotamus means “river horse” in Greek, and that Rhinoceros means “nose-horned”. However, you might not know that the Ostrich takes its name from the Greek word for “big sparrow” – a very big sparrow indeed!
Some common names are even stolen from their scientific names. “Boa constrictor” is literally the scientific name for, you guessed it, the Boa Constrictor. This process can also be reversed; the Gorilla’s scientific name was taken from the Ancient Greek Γόριλλαι (gorillai), meaning "tribe of hairy women", and so the common name preceded scientific thought by thousands of years.
Stealing from other tongues
Plenty of common names have been taken from regional languages from around the world. The name ‘Raccoon’ comes from the Powhatan tribe, and is written as rahaugcum, rarowcun, raugroughcum, or arathkone in their language– with pronunciation is as difficult as the spelling! Some of the strangest names come from Australian Aboriginal languages – the Koala bear, for example, takes its name from the words “no drink”, due to the fact that they get much of the water they need from the eucalyptus leaves that they eat.
The name Kangaroo comes from the Guugu Yimithirr language, and would more correctly spelt ‘gangurru’ in that tongue. Humorously but incorrectly, some people joke that this word means "I don't understand you" – it is said that this was the response of the Guugu Yimithirr people when asked what kangaroos were called by early explorers. Unfortunately this story seems to be a modern myth.
We should be grateful that we are able to steal names from other languages. Penguins take their name from the Welsh words for ‘White Head’, pen gwyn, but in Tudor times they (and other aquatic birds) were called ‘arse feet’, due to the position of their flippers. We are probably better off calling them Penguins!
Names can however come from the most unlikely of sources – mispronunciation, poor fashion choices and more. Flamingos, for example, get their names from the bright clothes worn by the people of Flanders, in modern day Belgium, the Flemings. Spanish explorers enjoyed a joke at their expense by naming the birds ‘Flamingo’, the Spanish word for ‘a Fleming’! Similarly, the brightly coloured Cardinal bird gets its name from the red robes worn by officials called Cardinals in the Catholic Church, which are exactly the same colour.
Some people claim that the word for Butterfly was originally the lovely “Flutterby”, which was then mispronounced, but unfortunately this is not true – the name comes from the ancient belief that these insects liked to land on milk products if they were left uncovered. Indeed, an alternate name for butterflies in Southern Germany is still milchdieb (milk thief) or Sahnedieb (cream thief!)
Bumblebees also take their names from their habits – although unlike butterflies, which never eat butter, these bees really do bumble around. Harry Potter fans will be delighted to know that Professor Dumbledore was named after an old English word for Bumblebee – although the word ‘Dumble’ meant ‘stupid person’, which probably doesn’t apply.
New species are still being named, although this process may lack some magic compared to the wonderful constructions of the past. Names like the “two-legged lizard” and “white cheeked macaque” are very descriptive, but show little imagination. However, all may not be lost. The “Hero ant” of Madagascar, named in 2014, protects its relatives by gripping onto intruders, and then hurling itself off the high locations where its nests are found. In this way the ant rids the nest of predators – and gives us hope that the list of fun and odd stories behind animal names may continue to grow in the future.