How 20 Animals Got Their Names

‘Hippopotamus’ is Latin for “river-horse,” which makes sense for these semiaquatic mammals. The origins of some other animal names aren’t quite as literal.
The origins of these animals’ names may surprise you.
The origins of these animals’ names may surprise you. / Agnieszka Wieczorek/500px/Getty Images (panda), Westend61/Getty Images (hyena), Kevin Schafer/The Image Bank/Getty Images (albatrosses), A. Martin UW Photography/Moment/Getty Images (octopus), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (frame)
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The word animal derives from the Latin anima, meaning “breath” or “soul.” Though animal first appeared in English in the late 14th century, it remained fairly uncommon until the 1600s, when its use as a replacement for the older word beast—which once referred to any living creature, but today has wilder, more ferocious connotations—won out. Beast, in turn, had been adopted into English from French sometime around the early 1200s. But just as it was eventually superseded by animal, beast itself took over from deer, which was used fairly loosely in Old English to refer to any wild animal.

Put another way, the history of animals and beasts is all a bit confusing. Fortunately, the individual names of different kinds of animals aren’t nearly as mixed up. That’s not to say they don’t have their own stories to tell, though.

Penguin

Penguins in Antarctica
Penguins. / Raimund Linke/The Image Bank/Getty Images

No one is entirely sure why penguins are called “penguins” (not helped by the fact that they were once called “arsefeet”), but the best theory we have is that penguin is a corruption of the Welsh pen gwyn, literally “white head.” The name pen gwyn originally applied to the great auk, an enormous flightless black-and-white seabird of the North Atlantic, which is now extinct. It’s presumed that sailors to the South Atlantic either confused the flightless black-and-white seabirds they saw there for great auks, or just used the same word for both creatures.

Albatross

Albatrosses.
Albatrosses. / Kevin Schafer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

This is a strange one: In the 16th century, the Arabic word for a sea eagle, al-ghattas, was borrowed into Spanish and became the Spanish word for a pelican, alcatraz (which is where the island with the prison gets its name). Alcatraz was then borrowed into English and became albatross in the late 17th century—but at each point in history, the word applied to completely different animals. An alternative theory claims that albatross and alcatraz might actually be unrelated, and instead, albatross could be derived from a Portuguese word, alcatruz, for one of the troughs that carried the water around a waterwheel. But even if that’s the case, the word still probably began life as another name for a pelican, with the bucket of the waterwheel probably alluding to the pelican’s enormous pouched bill.

Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros mom and baby.
Rhinoceros mom and baby. / Martin Harvey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Rhinoceros literally means “nose-horned.” The rhino– part is the same as in words like rhinoplasty, the medical name for a nose job, while the –ceros part is the same root found in words like triceratops and keratin, the tough, fibrous protein that makes up our hair and nails and rhino horns.

Ostrich

An ostrich.
An ostrich. / Anup Shah/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The English word ostrich is a corruption of the Latin avis struthioavis meaning “bird” and struthio being the Latin word for the ostrich itself. In turn, struthio comes from the Greek name for the ostrich, strouthos meagle, which literally means “big sparrow.”

Hippopotamus

A hippo among aquatic plants.
A hippo among aquatic plants. / Raimund Linke/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Hippopotamus literally means “river horse” in Greek. It might not look much like a horse, but it certainly lives in rivers—and let’s be honest, a hippo look more like a horse than an ostrich looks like a sparrow.

Raccoon

Raccoon on a log.
Raccoon on a log. / Joe McDonald/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Raccoon is derived from an Algonquin word that means “he scratches with his hands.” Before that was adopted into English, raccoons were known as “wash-bears” (and still are in several other languages, including Dutch and German), which refers to their perceived habit of washing their food before eating it.

Moose

A moose amid fall foliage.
A moose amid fall foliage. / Adria Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Moose, too, is thought to be an Algonquin word, meaning “he strips it off,” a reference to the animal’s fondness for tearing bark off trees.

Tiger

Three Sumatran tiger cubs.
Three Sumatran tiger cubs. / Schafer & Hill/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Our word tiger goes all the way back to Ancient Greek, but the Greeks had borrowed the word from Asia, and it’s a mystery where the word actually originated. One theory is that it comes from tighri, a word from Avestan (an ancient Iranian language) that means “arrow” or “sharp object,” but that’s only conjecture. Speaking of big cats

Leopard

A leopard rests in a tree.
A leopard rests in a tree. / Edwin Remsberg/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Confusingly, leopard literally means “lion-panther” or “lion-leopard.” Variations of the word pard have been used to mean “leopard” or “panther” since the days of Ancient Greek, while leon was the Greek, and eventually Latin, word for a lion. The word lion itself, meanwhile, is so old that its origins probably lie in the impossibly ancient languages from which Egyptian hieroglyphics derived. Another confusing big cat name is …

Cheetah

Cheetah on the run.
Cheetah on the run. / Winfried Wisniewski/The Images Bank/Getty Images

It derives from chita, which is the Hindi word for “leopard” and probably comes from a Sanskrit word literally meaning “spotted.”

Python

A coiled python.
A coiled python. / Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Moment/Getty Images

In Greek mythology, Python was an enormous dragon-like serpent that was slain by the legendary hero Apollo. Apollo left the serpent’s corpse to rot in the heat of the sun, and the site of its death eventually became the site of the oracle of Delphi (known as Pytho, to the ancient Greeks). Ultimately, the name python itself derives from a Greek word literally meaning “to rot.”

Anaconda

An anaconda on the forest floor.
An anaconda on the forest floor. / Martin Harvey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The anaconda’s name is a lot harder to explain. Although anacondas are only found in South America, it’s likely that the name was brought there from elsewhere. One likely theory claims that it once referred to an enormous snake of Southeast Asia that was known by a Tamil name, anaikkonda, literally meaning “having killed an elephant.”

Hyena

A hyena.
A hyena. / Westend61/Getty Images

The name hyena traces back to the Greek word for a pig or a boar, hys, which apparently refers to the spiny hairs on the animal’s back.

Walrus

Walruses on an iceberg.
Walruses on an iceberg. / Paul Souders/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Walrus was borrowed into English in the 18th century from Dutch, but it may have its origins in the Old Norse word rosmhvalr, which came from another name for walrus, morse. Before then, walruses were known as sea-elephants, sea-oxen, sea-cows, and even sea-horses.

Panda

A panda in a forest.
A panda in a forest. / Agnieszka Wieczorek/500px/Getty Images

Panda was borrowed into English in the early 1800s, when it originally referred exclusively to what we’d now call a red panda; in reference to the giant black-and-white panda, the word only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the animal was erroneously thought to be related to the red panda. Either way, panda is thought to come from a Nepali word, Nigálya-pónya, that might mean something like “cane-eating cat-bear.”

Octopus

An octopus on a coral reef.
An octopus on a coral reef. / A. Martin UW Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Octopus means “eight-footed” and not, despite what many people think, “eight-armed” or “eight-legged.” Also contrary to popular belief, the plural of octopus isn’t octopi. It would be if octopus were a Latin word (in which case its plural would follow the same rules as words like fungi and alumni), but octopus is derived from Ancient Greek roots. So to be absolutely, pedantically correct, the plural of octopus should be octopodes—but why complicate things? Feel free just to call more than one octopus a group of octopuses.

Tortoise

A desert tortoise.
A desert tortoise. / Scott Smith/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

No one is entirely sure why tortoises are called “tortoises,” although it’s fair to say that none of the theories we have to choose from is particularly flattering. On one hand, tortoise might be a derivative of a Latin word, tartaruchus, meaning “of the underworld.” On the other hand, it might come from the Latin tortus, meaning “twisted” (which is also where the adjective tortuous derives from). The actual Latin name for the tortoise, testudo, was much simpler, however: It simply means “shelled.”

Meerkat

A meerkat on the lookout.
A meerkat on the lookout. / all images copyright of Jamie Lamb - elusive-images.co.uk/Moment/Getty Images

The name meerkat was borrowed into English from Afrikaans, the Dutch-origin language spoken in South Africa. In its native Dutch however, meerkat is another name for the guenon, a type of monkey found in sub-Saharan Africa. How did the two words become confused? No one knows.

Kangaroo

A kangaroo at sunset.
A kangaroo at sunset. / John Carnemolla/Australian Picture Library/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

There’s an old folk etymology that claims kangaroo means “I don’t know.” According to the story, on his arrival in Australia, Captain Cook asked an Aboriginal Australian what the bizarre-looking creatures bounding around in the distance were. He replied, in his native language, “I don’t know”—which, to Captain Cook, sounded something like “kangaroo.” It’s a neat story, but likely an apocryphal one, not least because the chances of a Aboriginal Australian not knowing what a kangaroo was are pretty slim. Instead, it’s likely kangaroo likely derives from a local Guugu Yimidhirr word, perhaps simply meaning “large animal.”

Platypus

A platypus in a river.
A platypus in a river. / Manuel ROMARIS/Moment/Getty Images

And lastly, staying in Australia, the duck-billed platypus’s name literally means “flat-footed.” Bonus fact: Because of its bizarre appearance, the platypus was also once known as the duck-mole.

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A version of this story was published in 2016; it has been updated for 2024.