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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dandelion is a corruption of the French dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” a reference to the flowers’ jagged or “toothed” leaves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This derives from the Yiddish word for “snake,” shlang. Say no more.
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.
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.
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.
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.