10 Words for Fanciful, Obscure, Batty, Nonexistent Creatures

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Since the days of yore, tales of imaginary creatures have been spread by storytellers, myth-makers, and drunk guys lost in the woods. But not all are as literary as the Bandersnatch or as hairy as the Yeti—some non-existent creatures, like the ones mentioned below, are nearly nonexistent in language as well.


Though one would hope this term referred to a creature one part horse, one part person, and one part hippopotamus, alas: this is simply a synonym for centaur. There’s also an amusing variation that popped up in the early 1600s, described by clergyman Thomas Jackson as “A monstrous Hippocentaurique combination.”


This is an Australian term for a shaggy creature familiar to cryptozoology enthusiasts around the world. A 1980 use from Brisbane’s Courier-Journal suggests a lengthy history: “The ‘yowie’, a large hairy animal similar to the Himalayan yeti and American Big Foot, has existed in Aboriginal folklore for thousands of years.”


Part griffin, part horse, this is one of many hybrid beasts. People have been talking about hippogriffs since the 1600s, and much to my amusement, the term has been used figuratively, like when anything unique is described as a unicorn. In 1837, poet Thomas Carlyle referred to “that wild Hippogryff of a Democracy.” More recently, they've been featured in the Harry Potter novels and movies.


At least as old as the early 1900s, this critter—who inspired the name of the NHL team—was memorably discussed in John McPhee’s 1968 book The Pine Barrens: “This creature has been feared in the woods—on a somewhat diminishing scale—from the seventeen–thirties to the present. It is known as Leeds’ Devil, or the Jersey Devil.” As to the origin, McPhee claimed, “A woman named Leeds ... had her thirteenth child, and it growed, and one day it flew away. It’s haunted the earth ever since. It’s took pigs right out of pens. And little lambs ... The Leeds Devil is a crooked-faced thing, with wings.”


Since the 1500s, this beast has captured the fevered imaginations of anyone with a dangerously high fever. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “An imaginary creature, freq. represented as having the head and wings of an eagle or griffin, the body and legs of a lion, and the tail of a camel.”


You didn’t think the unicorn was immune to the variations of nature, did you? Among other uses, tricorn has applied to a unicorn times three in the horn department. The OED also records bicorn and millecorns, suggesting an infinity of fanciful horned animals.


We’ve all heard of the Sasquatch, but a different hairy beast was first spotted near Mount St. Helens in 1980. As described by the National Paranormal Society: “The creature has been reported as having yellow eyes and a wolf-like muzzle, bluish fur, sharp pointy teeth, bird-like feet and leather bat-like wings that possibly span up to 50 feet. The creature is reported as about 9 feet tall and has the ability to affect car engines.”


Read the OED’s definition and weep: “An imaginary creature resembling a llama or antelope, but with a head at either end of the body, pointing away from the torso, so that the creature always faces in two directions at once.” Double yikes. Often, this word refers to something a bit less fanciful: wishy-washy-ness, as seen in a 2001 use from London’s Daily Telegraph: “Ever since the election, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been engaged in a sort of pushmi-pullyu struggle over the euro.”


Henry H. Tyron’s 1939 book Fearsome Critters detailed a full kookload of imaginary creatures, including the ludicrously named dungavenhooter. Tyron describes the beast as alligator-like but mouthless and paints a freaky picture: “… behind a whiffle bush, the Dungavenhooter awaits the passing logger. On coming within reach of the dreadful tail, the victim is knocked senseless and then pounded steadily until he becomes entirely gaseous, whereat he is greedily inhaled through the wide nostrils.”


One would think the ice worm is quite annoying to the Abominable Snowman and the frost giants of Jotunheim. Fortunately, it’s just as imaginary—or at least it was when first coined in the early 1800s. In the life imitating art department, it turns out there are some actual ice worms out there, particularly in the glaciers of Alaska.