16 Words Derived From Animals

iStock/hkuchera
iStock/hkuchera

The origins of words quite often provide a few unexpected surprises, not least when a selection of seemingly random terms like cantaloupe, dandelion, and schlong all end up being descended from the names of different types of animals. From bears and storks to singing wolves and castrated sheep, all 16 of the words listed here have surprising zoological origins.

1. Arctic

Vintage constellation map of Ursa Major
iStock/sergeyussr

The Arctic takes its name from the Greek word for “bear,” arktos. Oddly, the bear in question isn’t a polar bear but the Great Bear, or Ursa Major, the constellation that maintains a prominent year-round position in the northern sky. As a result, the adjective arctic originally referred to the celestial rather than the geographical North Pole when it first appeared in English more than 700 years ago. It wasn’t until the mid-1500s that it first came to be used of the northernmost regions of the Earth.

2. Bellwether

A group of sheep
iStock/badmanproduction

A bellwether is a leader or trendsetter, and in particular a stock or product whose performance is seen as an indicator of the overall strength of a market. In the Middle Ages, however, a bellwether was originally the lead animal in a flock of sheep: wether is an old English dialect word for a castrated ram, and the lead wether in a flock would typically have a bell hung around its neck to help identify it.

3. Canopy

A mosquito on skin
iStock/W1zzard

In Ancient Greece, a kanopeion—from konops, the Greek word for “mosquito”—was a chair or couch fitted with a mosquito net over it. As time went by, the name came to apply only to the net rather than the chair, which ultimately gave us the word canopy In the early 14th century. The French canapé is derived from the same root, and refers to the fact that a canapé’s filling sits on top of the pastry in the same way that a person sits on a couch.

4. Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe melons are said to take their name from Cantalupo, an ancient papal estate on the outskirts of Rome where the first European cantaloupes were reportedly grown in the early Middle Ages. In turn, Cantalupo took its name from the Latin words cantare, meaning “to sing” (as in chant and incantation), and lupus, meaning “wolf,” and probably originally referred to a place where wolves could often be heard howling or seen gathering together.

5. Dandelion

Big lion lying on savannah grass
iStock/NiseriN

Dandelion is a corruption of the French dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” a reference to the flowers’ jagged or “toothed” leaves.

6. Dauphin

The title once held by the eldest son of the king of France, dauphin is actually the French word for “dolphin.” From the mid-14th century right up to the early 1800s, two stylized dolphins were depicted on the dauphin’s coat of arms, but precisely why the eldest prince of France came to be identified with a sea creature remains a mystery.

7. Exocet

Close-up of a flying fish against blue and cloudy sky
iStock/swedishmonica

An exocet is a type of marine missile first developed by the French Navy in the late 1960s. Its name is the French word for a flying fish.

8. Formication

Formication is the medical name for a creeping, tingling sensation felt on the skin, similar to pins and needles, which takes its name from the Latin word for “ant,” formica; it literally describes a sensation similar to insects crawling over the skin. As a symptom, formication is associated with a whole range of conditions, from anxiety and general emotional distress to shingles, neuralgia, alcohol withdrawal, Parkinson’s disease, and even mercury poisoning.

9. Harum-Scarum

Meaning “reckless” or “disorganized,” no one is quite sure where the term harum-scarum comes from, but a likely theory is that it is an old dialect corruption of hare and scare, probably in reference to a hunter’s dogs scaring rabbits and hares from their cover.

10. Henchman

A stallion playing
iStock/mari_art

The “hench” of henchman came from hengest, an Old English word for a horse. The term originally referred to a knight or servant who would accompany a nobleman on horseback on long journeys.

11. Pedigree

Although today it is used more generally to mean “lineage” or “heritage,” a pedigree was originally a genealogical diagram, like a family tree, showing relatives and their relations connected to one another by lines drawn from one generation to the next. It was these flat, broad, hooked lines that originally gave the pedigree its name, as scholars in Medieval France thought that they resembled a pied-de-grue—or a stork’s foot.

12. Schlong

Black snake looking at the camera
iStock/RightOne

This derives from the Yiddish word for “snake,” shlang. Say no more.

13. Sniper

Dating back to the early 19th century, a sniper was originally someone who literally shot snipe. The birds have long been considered one of the hardest types of game to shoot due both to their speed in flight and their nervous disposition, making it necessary to shoot at them from a distance rather than risk disturbing them by moving closer.

14. Sturdy

European Song Thrush deep in winter snow
iStock/rekemp

Nowadays, sturdy is used to mean “robust” or “solid,” but when it first appeared in English way back in the 14th century it was used to mean something more along the lines of “unruly” or “unmanageable.” Its precise origin is unclear, but at least one theory claims it comes from the Latin word for “thrush,” turdus, as thrushes apparently once had a reputation for eating leftover and partly fermented grapes at wineries. This would make the birds behave frenziedly and drunkenly, and it is this bizarre behavior that initially inspired the word—the saying soûl comme une grive, or “as drunk as a thrush,” is still used in French today.

15. Tragedy

Tragedy probably has one of the most peculiar etymologies in the entire English language: it derives from a Greek word, tragoedia, literally meaning “goat song.” Why? Well, one theory claims it comes from actors in Ancient Greece dressing in furs and animal hides to portray legendary animals (like goat-legged satyrs) in performances of dramas and tragedies, but the true origin of the word remains a mystery.

16. Treacle

Treacle—the British word for molasses, or else a byword for anything overly sentimental and sweet—first appeared in English in the early 1400s, when it was originally used as a word for a medicine or antidote used to treat snakebites. In this context it comes from therion, a general Ancient Greek word for any wild animal.

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Words With Difficult-to-Remember Meanings

Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Satenik_Guzhanina/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. From our friends at Vocabulary.com, here are 10 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations not quite reflected in their dictionary definitions.

1. Nonplussed

The Definition: “Filled with bewilderment”

If it looks like there's a negative at the beginning of this word, it's because etymologically speaking, there is—it's from Latin non plus, "no more, no further." Still, there is no word plussed, and that can get confusing.

2. Inchoate

The Definition: “Only partly in existence; imperfectly formed”

It may look like the in- at the start of this word would be the same as the one at the start of words like incomplete or inadequate. Although that may be a good way to remember it, the first letters of this word are not a negative. The word comes from Latin inchoare, which meant "to begin." Inchoate things are often just beginning.

3. and 4. Cachet and Panache

The Definitions: “an indication of approved or superior status”; “distinctive and stylish elegance,” respectively

Shades of meaning between cachet and panache are often confused. Cachet is more about prestige, and panache is more about style. Having high tea at Buckingham Palace can have a lot of cachet in your social circle, but the genteel way you sip your tea can have a lot of panache.

5. Indefatigable

The Definition: “Showing sustained enthusiastic action with unflagging vitality”

In Latin, it was possible to defatigare, or "to tire out," but only the negative version prefixed with in- survived the journey into English (via French). Indefatigable is a word you almost have to say quickly, and if you get through all those syllables, it's almost as if you've proven the definition: It takes "unflagging vitality" to reach the end.

6. Uncanny

The Definition: “Surpassing the ordinary or normal”

The word canny is rare but not unknown as a word that means "cunning" or "sly." The only problem is that that's not the meaning of canny contained in uncanny. Canny used to mean "knowing and careful," and therefore uncanny meant "mischievous," coming to refer to supernatural spirits who toyed with mortals. Comic book fans have a huge head start with this word, having grown up with the Uncanny X-Men, who all have supernatural powers.

7. Unabashed

The Definition: “Not embarrassed”

This word is one where the positive version did exist but has fallen out of use. Abash meant "perplex, embarrass, lose one's composure" in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, so unabashed means "not embarrassed."

8. Dilatory

The Definition: “Wasting time”

This word is confusing because it sounds like it's potentially related to words like dilate or even depilatory. It's not related to either of those words, but luckily there are ways to remember what dilatory actually means—the word almost sounds like delay or dilly dally, both of which relate to the word's definition.

9. Martinet

The Definition: “Someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms”

This word looks and sounds like marionette, the stringed puppet, which is a pitfall to avoid, because it can lead you to believe that martinet means the exact opposite of what it actually means. A martinet has some power, and no one is pulling their strings.

10. Hoi Polloi

The Definition: “The common people generally”

This is confusing because it's an obscure word for the common folk, and sometimes it's hard to keep straight whether the upper or lower crust is being discussed. Hoi polloi literally means "the many," with polloi being the plural of the well-known Greek prefix poly.

To see more words with difficult-to-remember meanings, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.