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.

10 Old English Words You Need to Be Using

The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The 'Southwick Codex' (including Old English adaptations of Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Prose Dialogues of Saturn and Solomon, homily on St Quintin); 'the Nowell Codex' (including a homily on St Christopher, Marvels of the East; Beowulf and Judith), British Library // Public Domain

If you learn just 10 Old English words today, let them be these from Mark Forsyth's The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.

1. Uhtceare

“There is a single Old English word meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying.’ Uhtceare is not a well-known word even by Old English standards, which were pretty damn low. In fact, there is only one recorded instance of it actually being used."

2. Expergefactor

"An expergefactor is anything that wakes you up. This may simply be your alarm clock, in which case it is time to hit the snooze button. But it may be a dustman or a milkman or a delivery van, in which case it is time to lean out of your window and shriek: 'Damn you all, you expergefactors!' This ought to keep them quiet until one of them has at least found a good dictionary."

3. and 4. Pantofle and Staddle

“Once your toes are snugly pantofled, you can stagger off to the bathroom, pausing only to look at the little depression that you have left in your bed, the dip where you have been lying all night. This is known as a staddle.”

5. Grubbling

"It’s time to check whether you’ve got your keys and your phone and your purse or wallet. This is done by grubbling in your pockets. Grubbling is like groping, except less organized. It is a verb that usually refers to pockets, but can also be used for feeling around in desk drawers that are filled with knick-knacks and whatnot."

6. Mugwump

Mugwump is a derogatory word for somebody in charge who affects to be above petty squabbles and factions. So when your boss tries to make peace at the meeting table like an impartial angel, he is being a mugwump.” (The Mugwumps were also a group of rebellious Republicans who broke with their party to support the Democratic candidate in the 1884 U.S. presidential election. —Ed.)

7. Rawgabbit

"A rawgabbit, just in case you were wondering, is somebody who speaks in strictest confidence about a subject of which they know nothing. A rawgabbit is the person who pulls you aside and reveals in a careful whisper that the head of compliance is having an affair with the new recruit in IT, which you know to be utterly untrue because the head of compliance is having an affair with you, and the new recruit in IT hasn’t started yet."

8. Vinomadefied

“Once you are properly vinomadefied, all sorts of intriguing things start to happen. Vinomadefied, by the way, does not mean ‘made mad by wine,’ but merely ‘dampened by it.’”

9. Lanspresado

"A lanspresado is (according to a 1736 dictionary of thieves’ slang) 'He that comes into company with but two-pence in his pocket.' Lanspresados are everywhere. They have usually forgotten their wallets or can’t find [an ATM] or some intensely complicated thing has happened with their rent, which means that they’re skint until Thursday."

10. Vomitorium

“A vomitorium is not a room in which ancient Romans would throw up halfway through a banquet in order to make room for the next course. That’s a myth. A vomitorium is simply a passage by which you can exit a building, usually a theater.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

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