15 Common Words Inspired by Animals

You might be surprised to discover that these common words—from ‘aviation’ to ‘pedigree’ and beyond—can trace their etymology to the instincts, physical features, and vocalizations of animals.
Canines have inspired all kinds of words—and they’re not the only animals to have done so.
Canines have inspired all kinds of words—and they’re not the only animals to have done so. / Ashley Cooper/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Animals have always been important to the lives and livelihoods of humans, so it’s no wonder they've left a mark on language. Here are 15 words that were etymologically inspired by animals.

1. Bawl

The word bawl comes from the sound that a dog makes. In Latin, the dog says “bau bau,” and bawl originated in the verb baulare, “to bark like a dog.” Bawl was first used in English for the cries of dogs, and was later applied to human sobbing and yelling (as in “bawl out”).

2. Cynic

Dog under yellow blanket
The etymology of the word ‘cynic’ involves dogs. / Vera Vita/Moment/Getty Images

Cynic comes from the Greek cynikos for “dog-like, churlish.” Though the name might have first been applied to the ancient members of the Cynical philosophical sect because of the school where its founder taught (Cynosarges, “place of the white dog”), the Cynics were widely thought of as dog-like and churlish by their contemporaries for living on the street and ignoring the rules of decorum.

3. Harpoon

Harpoon also goes back to dogs. It comes from the French harpon, a cramp iron for holding stones together, which came from harpe, the word for a dog’s claw.

4. Tyke

Dogs also figure in the history of tyke. It comes from Old Norse tík, a word for female dog. It was used as an insult in English, and then as a teasing, reproachful way to refer to children. These days, it’s lost the sense of reproach and is just another cute word for the wee ones.

5. Pedigree

Cranes (Grus grus) are seen flying in Gallocanta Lake during...
Cranes—specifically, their feet—inspired the word ‘pedigree.’ / Marcos del Mazo/GettyImages

Pedigree comes from the Anglo-Norman pé de grue, meaning “foot of the crane.” It refers to the lines on genealogical charts, which have the look of crane footprints.

6. Cavalier

The word cavalier comes from the Old Spanish cavallero, meaning “horse-rider,” which in turn comes from cavallo, “horse.” Those horse-riding cavaliers, or knights, could get pretty haughty and disdainful sometimes, giving rise to the adjective we use today. But they could also be gallant and brave, which is why we also have the related word, chivalrous.

7. Hobby

Brown horse with white marking on face in a green field
The word ‘hobby’ can be traced back to horses. / Lucas Ninno/Moment/Getty Images

Hobby was an old nickname (related to Robin) that people in England used to give cart-horses. It became a general word for a nice little pony, and then for a toy horse. It later came to mean a pursuit taken more seriously than it should be, like riding a toy horse.

8. Hackneyed

We got hackney from Old French haquenée, a gentle sort of horse considered especially suitable for ladies to ride. It came to be used as a general term for horses that were hired out and then, by metaphorical extension, for anyone having to do drudge work. If something was all worn out from years of drudgery, then it was hackneyed. Like a stale cliché.

9. Butcher

Butcher goes back through Anglo-Norman bocher to Old French bochier, which was formed off the word boc, meaning “goat.” So a butcher was originally a “dealer in goat’s flesh.”

10. Caprice

Dairy Goat Herds Surge Over The Last Decade In The U.S.
The word ‘caprice’ might be goat-related. / Justin Sullivan/GettyImages

Caprice might be another goat word: It may go back to the Italian capro, or “goat,” an animal known for its herky-jerky, whimsical skipping about.

11. Burrito

Burrito comes from the Spanish for “little burro,” or donkey. These days, burritos can be nearly the same size as their namesakes.

12. Easel

Donkey, Normandy, France
Donkeys inspired the word ‘easel.’ / Tim Graham/GettyImages

Easel is another donkey word, from the Dutch for donkey, ezel. An easel is similar to a saw-horse, another four-legged structure you can use to support your work.

13. Vaccine

Vaccine was formed from vacca, the Latin word for cow. The first vaccines were made from cowpox lesions, known as variola vaccinae, which were found to produce immunity from smallpox.

14. Aviation

Aviation comes from the Latin avis for bird. It was coined in the 19th century while humans were in the middle of trying to figure out how to do that thing that birds do so well.

15. Vixen

Fox and kit
‘Vixen’ comes to us courtesy of the female fox. / Belfalah Soufian/500px/Getty Images

Vixen is the feminine form of fox. Members of the Vulpes genus have given English a host of metaphorical expressions to work with. This is why we can make sense of the phrase the vixen outfoxed the foxy sly fox.

A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2024.