How 20 Animals Got Their Names

iStock.com/NeilBradfield
iStock.com/NeilBradfield

The word animal derives from a Latin word for a "breath" or "soul," anima. Although it 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, was 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 But just as it was eventually superseded by animal, beast itself took over from deer, which was used fairly loosely in Old English to refer to any wild animal.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—though thankfully, 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.

1. Penguin

No one is entirely sure why penguins are called penguins (not helped by the fact that they were once upon a time 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, and it's presumed that sailors to the South Atlantic either confused the flightless black-and-white seabirds they saw there for auks, or just used the same word for both creatures.

2. Albatross

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. Even if that’s the case, however, 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 bill pouch.

3. Rhinoceros

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.

4. Ostrich

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.”

5. Hippopotamus

A hippo with its mouth open
iStock.com/nattanan726

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, it looks more like a horse than an ostrich looks like a sparrow.

6. Raccoon

Raccoon is derived from an Algonquin word that literally 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 habit of washing their food before eating it.

7. Moose

Moose, too, is thought to be an Algonquin word, literally meaning “he strips it off,” a reference to the animal’s fondness for tearing bark off trees. Likewise, muskrat is perhaps a derivative of an Algonquin name meaning “it is red.”

8. Tiger

Our word tiger goes all the way back to Ancient Greek, but the Greeks in turn 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 literally means “arrow” or “sharp object,” but that’s only conjecture. Speaking of big cats …

9. Leopard

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 …

10. Cheetah

Cheetah on the hunt
iStock.com/Kandfoto

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

11. Python

In Greek mythology, the 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.”

12. Anaconda

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

13. Hyena

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.

14. Walrus

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.

15. Panda

A panda in a tree
iStock.com/DennisvandenElzen

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 it 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 literally mean something like “cane-eating cat-bear.”

16. Octopus

Octopus literally means “eight-footed” not, despite what many people think, “eight-armed” or “eight-legged.” Also contrary to popular belief, the plural of octopus really 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 actually 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.

17. Tortoise

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 the one hand, tortoise might be a derivative of a Latin word, tartaruchus, literally meaning “of the underworld.” On the other, 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.”

18. Meerkat

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.

19. Kangaroo

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 a native 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 native 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.”

20. Platypus

A platypus swimming
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

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.

This list first ran in 2016.

'Turdsworth': Lord Byron’s Not-So-Affectionate Nickname for William Wordsworth

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

For those of you who thought William Wordsworth was a not-so-subtle pseudonym meant to further the literary brand of a certain 19th-century poet, think again: William Wordsworth’s real name was actually William Wordsworth.

The fitting, alliterative moniker makes it hard to forget that Wordsworth was a wordsmith, but it also made him an easy target for mockery at the hands of other Romantic era writers.

Some of it was the type of clever wordplay you might expect from England’s elite poets. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Michael Wood highlights the time that Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent his poem “The Nightingale” to Wordsworth, writing, “And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth/You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.”

While Coleridge’s witty rhyme poked fun at Wordsworth in a playful way, not all of his contemporaries were quite so kind. As Literary Hub points out, Lord Byron referred to Wordsworth as “Turdsworth.”

Byron’s jab sounds like something you’d hear at an elementary-school kickball game, but, then again, the eccentric poet was never one to adhere to anybody’s expectations—during college, for example, he often walked his pet bear around the grounds.

As for the word turd itself, it’s been around much longer than you might have realized. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it derives from the Old English word tord, meaning “piece of excrement,” and it’s been used as a personal insult ever since the 15th century.

If fecal-themed nicknames aren’t really your thing, here are 42 other Old English insults that you can fling with abandon.

[h/t Literary Hub]

14 Colonial-Era Slang Terms to Work Into Modern Conversation

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When you think of Colonial America, soldiers marching to fife and drum and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite are probably what come to mind. But the Colonial Period—which stretched from roughly 1607 to 1776, starting when America was just a group of colonies on the east side of the continent and ending with the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—was a fascinating but complicated time in which settlers from England forged a proud new identity. These new settlers brought the English language with them when they came, and whenever English finds a new home, it often takes on a new life. America was no exception. Here are 15 slang words that were recorded in and around this period of American history.

1. Kedge

What It Meant: Doing well

In you lived in a country town in Colonial-era New England and someone asked how you were doing, you might have replied, “I’m pretty kedge.” It’s a bizarre but wonderful term that essentially means in being in good health—but it also kind of sounds like something a teen in an ‘80s movie would say.

2. Cat's-paw, or to be made a cat's-paw out of

What It Meant: To be a dupe, to be used as a tool.

This colorful expression came from a fable, The Monkey and the Cat, where a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire, promising the cat its share. Spoiler alert: The cat doesn't get any. So to be used for someone else's gain is to be made a "cat's paw out of."

3. Chuffy

What It Meant: Surly or impolite

If someone is short with you, tell them they don’t have to be so chuffy. It’s a strange, old word with obscure origins, and one that sounds a bit softer than “jerk.”

4. Scranch

What It Meant: To crack something between your teeth

Though this apparently “vulgar” term sounds like it was named after what it sounds like to crack something with your teeth, it supposedly comes from the Dutch word, schransen.

5. Gut-foundered

What It Meant: Very Hungry

This word, which dates to 1647, is believed to be regional Newfoundland slang. Gut-foundered could easily become a new hyperbole for us pampered moderns to employ, like “starving.”

6. Fishy

What It Meant: Drunk

Possibly no one invented more ways to say “drunk” than colonial Americans. Benjamin Franklin alone compiled 200 ways to say it. Fishy was meant to also imply the way the drinker looked: “Bleary eyes and turned-down mouth corners make a drunk resemble a fish,” writes Richard M. Lederer, Jr. at American Heritage.

7. Macaroni

What It Meant: Fancy

When Yankee Doodle called that feather hat “macaroni,” he wasn’t being a weirdo. Macaroni was a term used at the time to refer to a particular men’s fashion from England that was intentionally flashy, over-the-top, and androgynous.

8. Twistical

What It Meant: Unfair or immoral

This word—which according to 1848’s Dictionary of Americanisms was primarily used in New England—feels like it could just as easily have been invented today. Slip it into conversation in the next time you experience something unjust.

9. Savvy, Savey, or Sabby

What It Meant: To know or understand

While we still use this word to mean something like “literate” (computer-savvy), in Colonial times, it was actually used more like the way Jack Sparrow uses it. So you might say, “I don’t want to come to work anymore, savvy that?” According to Merriam-Webster, it’s derived from sabe, which means “he knows” in Portuguese. This became sabi in Creole, and later, “savvy.”

10. Adam’s Ale

What It Meant: Water

If you’re feeling thirsty for water, try using this slang term that was popular on both sides of the pond in the Colonial era. To quote a 1792 American poem by Philip Freneau, “In reason’s scale his actions weigh’d / His spirits want no foreign aid / Long life is his, in vigour passes / A spring that never grew stale / Such virtue lies in Adam’s Ale.”

11. Shaver

What It Meant: A young or adolescent boy

To call a boy a shaver was to imply that they were young enough that they just started shaving. Which is fitting, if a little condescending—like they’re not embarrassed enough already!

12. Jollification

What It Meant: Celebration or merrymaking

It's hard to even say jollification without sounding like a reenactor at Colonial Williamsburg. And though jollification sounds like it would be a good thing, it seems like there was also such a thing as too much jollification: The August 10, 1772 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet used the word in a morality tale about a man named Hilario: "What jolification [sic] could be complete without Hilario? Cards succeeded cards every morning to invite him to dinner, to routs, to dances; his only excuse was prior engagement, and he had not resolution to withstand the temptations.” By the end of the tale, according to Children In Colonial America, "a life of cards, women, and wanton spending slowly whittled away his wealth ... no woman would marry him, and even his good looks had failed him."

13. Simon Pure

What It Meant: The real deal, authentic, untainted

A delightful phrase that rolls off the tongue and could be dropped into many modern sentences. And when someone asks you, “who the heck is Simon?” you tell them that Simon Pure was a Quaker character who has to prove he’s the real Simon Pure in a 1718 play by Susanna Centlivre called A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

14. Circumbendibus

What It Meant: Roundabout

Of all the ways to describe something unnecessarily roundabout— like someone telling a rambling story or taking a weird road when driving somewhere—this word, which dates to 1681, might be the most delightful. It also shows how much we fun we had and still have with language, combining prefixes and suffixes to make new words.

Joe Gillard is the author of The Little Book of Lost Words, and the founder of History Hustle.

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