22 Brilliant Old Nicknames For Animals

A toucan, a.k.a. an "egg-sucker"
A toucan, a.k.a. an "egg-sucker"
iStock.com/pchoui

Dogs have been called pooches since the early 1900s. Rabbits have been called bunnies since the 18th century. And the earliest reference to a puss rather than a "cat" dates back as far as 1533. Not all animal nicknames like these survive from one generation to the next, however, and the 22 listed here are among the most unusual that the English language has long since forgotten.

1. Arsefoot

Since Tudor times, a number of different water birds have been nicknamed arsefoot on account of their legs being positioned so far back on their bodies. The name was apparently first applied to the great crested grebe, but throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it came to be used for various species of ducks, loons, and even penguins—in his History of the Earth (1774), the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith explained how penguins, “like Indian canoes, are the swiftest [birds] in the water by having their paddles in the rear. Our sailors, for this reason, give these birds the very homely but expressive name of arse-feet.”

2. Balance-Fish

A 2nd century Roman poem about fishing, the Halieutica, makes reference to “the monstrous balance fish, of hideous shape.” It’s not entirely clear from the context what fish the poem is actually referring to, but the name eventually stuck as a nickname for the hammerhead shark and remained in use long into the 19th century.

3. Bobby-Dazzler

Bobby-dazzler is an old British English expression for anything of exceptionally good quality or striking appearance, like a doozy or a humdinger. According to The English Dialect Dictionary (1898), however, bobby-dazzler began life as a local name for a butterfly; bobby is an equally old-fashioned English dialect word for a plant covered in insects.

4. Candle-Fly

In his English Dictionarie, or An Interpreter of Hard English Words (1626), the lexicographer Henry Cockeram defined a candle-fly as “a flie that, hovering about a candle, burns itself”—in other words, a moth.

5. Carry-Castle

In the Middle Ages, elephants were nicknamed carry-castles on account of their enormous size and strength. The image of the castle-carrying elephant is a particularly ancient one, no doubt inspired by tales of terrifying war-elephants from history (more on those later), and is nowadays used on various coats of arms and crests as a symbol of strength and resilience.

6. Dumbledore

If you thought JK Rowling made the name Dumbledore up, think again—dor is an Old English word for a flying or buzzing insect, and dumbledore is actually an 18th century nickname for a bumblebee. In an interview in 1999, Rowling herself explained that she gave the wise old headmaster of Hogwarts the name because of his love of music: “Dumbledore … seemed to suit the headmaster,” she said, “because one of his passions is music, and I imagined him walking around humming to himself.”

7. Egg-Sucker

The toucan was once nicknamed the egg-sucker because, according to one 19th century description, “it chiefly feeds on the eggs found in other birds’ nests.” Actually toucans chiefly feed on fruit, but they are nothing if not adaptable and have indeed been known to eat eggs and even nestlings—as well as insects, lizards, amphibians, and small mammals—when the opportunity arises.

8. Essence-Peddler

An old name for a traveling salesman who sells perfume and scent, in the late 19th century essence-peddler came to be used as a humorous nickname for the skunk. As an article in New York’s Knickerbocker magazine explained in 1860, “It is a vulgar mistake that the porcupine has the faculty of darting his quills to a distance, as the essence-peddler has of scattering his aromatic wares.”

9. Fox-Ape

In the mid 17th century, a “fox-ape” that had been captured in Virginia and brought back to England was presented to the Royal Society in London. So called because it appeared to be “of a middle nature, between fox and ape,” according to the Society’s records, the creature had a “remarkable pouch … in the belly, into which, upon any occasion of danger, it can receive its young.” Today the fox-ape is called the opossum, an Algonquin name that literally means “white dog.”

10. Hotchi-Witchi

Hotchi-witchi is an old Roma nickname for the hedgehog. Precisely what the name means is unclear, but it’s likely that the first part is an alternation of urchin (another old English name for the hedgehog) while the second is probably an old Romany word meaning something like “woodland” or “forest.”

11. Lucanian Ox

In 280 BCE, the Greek leader Pyrrhus invaded the Roman province of Lucania in an attempt both to liberate its people and to establish his own empire on Roman soil. Besides some 30,000 infantrymen, Pyrrhus brought with him 20 war elephants on loan from Ptolemy II of Egypt, which were dressed in thick armor and carried groups of archers high on their backs. The sight of Pyrrhus’s enormous war elephants unsurprisingly terrified the local Roman soldiers (and their horses), causing chaos on the battlefield and ultimately securing a Greek victory. With no idea of what these enormous creatures could be, the Romans called them Lucanian oxen, a name that remained in use for years to come.

12. Monkey-Bear

Because of their habit of climbing trees—and because they were once mistakenly believed to be bears rather than marsupials—koalas were known as monkey-bears in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were also once known as monkey-sloths, kangaroo-bears, and, among English immigrants in Australia in the early 1800s, native-bears.

13. Mouldwarp

Mould or mold is an Old English word for loose earth or rubble, while warp is an equally ancient word meaning to throw, or to scatter around. Put together, mouldwarp is an old nickname for a mole.

14. Onocrotalus

Onos is the Ancient Greek word for an ass or a donkey (as in onocentaur, a centaur with the body of an ass rather than a horse), while a crotalus is another name for a castanet, or the clapper inside a bell. This literally makes an onocrotalus an “ass-clapper,” but despite appearances it’s actually an old nickname for the pelican. A footnote to the 1425 edition of the Wycliffe Bible helpfully explains that “the Onocrotalus is an unclene bird, and hath a face like an ass.” Although the word has long since vanished from the language, the scientific name of the great white pelican is still Pelecanus onocrotalus.

15. Pismire

Many species of ants naturally produce formic acid, an irritant that they use in various ways to deter would-be predators or attackers. As if that weren’t unpleasant enough, formic acid smells faintly of urine, and so ants have been nicknamed pismires since the 14th century at least.

16. Poltroon Tiger

Poltroon tiger—alongside sneak-cat, pampas cat, Indian devil, catamountain, deer tiger, and even bender lion—is an old 18th century name for the puma. Admittedly, no one is quite sure where the name comes from: a poltroon is a coward, so the name could be intended to refer to how shy pumas are, or else to the fact that they can’t roar like other big cats. A poltroon can also be a mean-spirited or wicked person, which could refer to its stealthiness or dangerousness. But perhaps the most likely explanation is that the name refers to the puma’s ability to retract its claws, as in the 18th century a poltroon was a hawk or falcon that had had its talons clipped off.

17. Quickhatch

Derived from a vague English interpretation of its Cree name, kwĭkkwâhaketsh, the wolverine has been known as the quickhatch since the 1600s. It’s also known as the skunk bear, the carcajou and the glutton, on account of its voracious appetite.

18. Sparrow-Camel

The Ancient Greeks called the ostrich the strouthokamelos or “sparrow-camel,” apparently in reference to its long camel-like neck. The name was adopted into Latin (the scientific name for the ostrich is Struthio camelus) and eventually into English—a 19th century guide to natural history, Noah’s Ark, or Mornings In The Zoo (1882), explains that “the sparrow-camel … hardly deserves to be called a bird, and it is certainly not a beast.”

19. Sulfur-Bottom

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes a species of whale he calls the “sulfur bottom,” which has “a brimstone belly,” and is “seldom seen except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance.” While Moby-Dick itself is a sperm whale, here Ishmael is describing the blue whale, which has been known as the sulfur-bottom or sulphur-bottomed rorqual since the mid 18th century on account of the yellowish color of its underside.

20. Washing-Bear

Because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it, raccoons were once widely known as washing-bears. According to The Illustrated Natural History (1865), “when engaged in this curious custom [the raccoon] grasps the food in both its forepaws, and shakes it violently back and forward in the water.” The name was probably first adopted into English from Germany, where raccoons are still known as Waschbären, or “wash-bears.”

21. Wink-A-Puss

Wink-a-puss is an old English nickname for an owl, but it was also once used as “an opprobrious appellation, in allusion perhaps to a mangy cat,” according to one 19th century glossary of The Devonshire Dialect (1837).

22. Witch’s Horse

In Scandinavian folklore, witches are often depicted as riding around on the backs of wolves, and hence wolves have been nicknamed witches’ horses since the early Middle Ages. The earliest English record of the name comes from a 13th century account of the death of Harald III of Norway during a failed attempt to claim the English throne in 1066.

This story first appeared in 2014.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

1. Apple AirPods Pro; $219

Apple

You may not know it by looking at them, but these tiny earbuds by Apple offer HDR sound, 30 hours of noise cancellation, and powerful bass, all through Bluetooth connectivity. These trendy, sleek AirPods will even read your messages and allow you to share your audio with another set of AirPods nearby.

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2. Sony Zx220bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (Open Box - Like New); $35

Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

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3. Sony Xb650bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones; $46

Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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5. Jashen V18 350w Cordless Vacuum Cleaner; $180

Jashen

If you're obsessive about cleanliness, it's time to lose the vacuum cord and opt for this untethered model from JASHEN. Touting a 4.3-star rating from Amazon, the JASHEN cordless vacuum features a brushless motor with strong suction, noise optimization, and a convenient wall mount for charging and storage.

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Evachill

This EvaChill personal air conditioner is an eco-friendly way to cool yourself down in any room of the house. You can set it up at your work desk at home, and in just a few minutes, this portable cooling unit can drop the temperature by 59º. All you need to do is fill the water tank and plug in the USB cord.

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7. Gourmia Gcm7800 Brewdini 5-Cup Cold Brew Coffee Maker; $120

Gourmia

The perfect cup of cold brew can take up to 12 hours to prepare, but this Gourmia Cold Brew Coffee Maker can do the job in just a couple of minutes. It has a strong suction that speeds up brew time while preserving flavor in up to five cups of delicious cold brew at a time.

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8. Townew: The World's First Self-Sealing Trash Can; $90

Townew

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9. Light Smart Solar Powered Parking Sensor (Two-Pack); $155

FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

The Queen’s Guard May Have to Give Up Their Iconic Bearskin Hats

Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Defence Images, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) has given its leaders the chance to negotiate new trade deals and maybe even ban the sale of certain products—like fur. It’s something animal rights activists have long been pushing for, and a recently publicized letter from UK environment secretary George Eustice suggests that the government will indeed investigate the possibility.

As The Independent reports, Eustice wrote to the chief executive of the British Fur Trade Association that “once the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU has been established, there will be an opportunity to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales.” It’s far from a definitive proclamation, but since Eustice has seemed open to banning fur in the past, the letter has been taken as a positive sign for the anti-fur movement.

If the UK does eventually prohibit the sale of fur, this could mean the end of the authentic bearskin hats worn by the Queen’s Guard, who are most often seen stationed outside Buckingham Palace. According to Londonist, the 18-inch hats are created with fur from black bears killed during Canada’s annual black bear cull—a large-scale hunt that helps keep the population under control—and the UK Ministry of Defence purchases up to 100 new hats for the famously unflappable infantrymen each year.

The tradition of donning such eccentric headgear dates back to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard wore similar hats to make them seem taller and more intimidating. After the French were defeated by the Duke of Wellington and his British army, Britain adopted the hats as a symbol of victory.

But even if the UK does prohibit fur in the future, the Queen’s Guard could still keep the custom going. After all, there are plenty of convincing kinds of fake fur on the market these days. And as for what Queen Elizabeth II might think about the shift, we’re guessing she’d condone it; she herself gave up wearing fur products in 2019.

[h/t The Independent]