15 Delightfully Descriptive French Animal Names

En français, the name for ‘jellyfish’ comes from a famous figure in Greek mythology—can you guess which one?
Why go by the jellyfish’s English name when you could go with its more delightful French moniker instead?
Why go by the jellyfish’s English name when you could go with its more delightful French moniker instead? / Sebastian von Ehren/500px/Getty Images (jellyfish), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

It’s sometimes said that everything sounds better in French, and animal names are no exception. From raccoon and starfish to moth and mayfly, these monikers have a certain je ne sais quoi that’s sure to make you prefer them over the English (or maybe even the Irish).

1. Un paresseux

Three-toed sloth in a tree against a green background
“Lazy? Moi?” / Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

English translation:sloth

The sloth has been unfairly maligned as lazy—it’s not their fault that they have to take it easy because they have a slow metabolic rate and need to conserve energy. Unfortunately for these cute animals, though, that trait has come through in its name: In English, sloth dates back to the 12th century and was first used to refer to the animal in the 17th century. In French, the word for sloth is also an adjective that can be translated as “lazy” or “sluggish.”

2. Un glouton

Wolverine with open mouth in snow
“So what if I devour my whole meal?” / Mike Hill/Stone/Getty Images

English translation:wolverine

In French, there are two words for wolverine: carcajou and glouton. The latter is also an adjective that can be translated as “gluttonous” or “greedy.” Although there’s no trace of its gluttony in its common English moniker, the wolverine’s scientific name is Gulo gulo, which translates to “glutton glutton” from Latin. According to National Geographic, the name likely derived from the fact that “wolverines live in vast territories where food is scarce. So, when one finds something edible, the wolverine will eat as much as possible, returning to a carcass many times until it’s been picked clean.” 

3. Une chauve-souris

Little brown bat flying
“Who are you calling a bald mouse?” / Joe McDonald/The Image Bank/Getty Images

English translation:bat

The French term for bat, une chauve-souris, literally translates to “bald mouse,” which makes no real sense—bats aren’t rodents, nor are they hairless. One proposed theory for the origin of the name is that it might be a mistranslation from the Roman era: The bat was called “cawa sorix” (“owl mouse”) in Vulgar Latin, but cawa turned into calva—which translates to “bald”—over time. It’s almost like a game of whisper down the lane gone wrong. 

4. Un raton laveur

Raccoon in water
“I’m not actually washing my food, you know.” / Cultura RF/Jouko van der Kruijssen/Image Source/Getty Images

English translation:raccoon

The French name for these trash pandas literally translates to “washing rat” due to the raccoon’s tendencies to wet its food before eating. (It’s worth noting, though, that they aren’t washing their food per se, just enhancing their tactile experience.) The English raccoon is derived from the Algonquian language of the Powhatan people: The words aroughcun and aroughcoune mean “one that rubs, scrubs, and scratches with its hands.”

5. Une chouette

Barn owl on a post
“Who are you calling ‘un hibou’?’ / mark hughes/Moment/Getty Images

English translation:owl

The French word chouette doesn’t just mean “owl”; it’s also an adjective that can be used as “brilliant” or “great”—and although the term doesn’t highlight any specific attribute of the owl, most people would probably agree that owls are pretty awesome. If you’re heading to France and plan to discuss owls, you should know that chouette isn’t the only term for the birds: It’s specifically used for owls without ear tufts, while hibou is used for owls that have them.

6. Une méduse

pink jellyfish on blue background
“It’s not hard to see how I got my French name.” / Shang Cheung/500px/Getty Images

English translation:jellyfish

In French, Méduse is also the name for Medusa, the Gorgon from Greek mythology who had snakes instead of hair and the ability to turn anyone who looked into her eyes to stone. Jellyfish tentacles are said to resemble Medusa’s hair, hence their name.

7. Un papillon de nuit

Close up of elephant hawkmoth.
“Je suit un papillon de nuit.” / Westend61/Getty Images

English translation:moth

Moths can get a bad rap for being ugly pests—a reputation that is both unfair (not only are they an important part of the food chain, they’re also pollinators) and a far cry from how butterflies are viewed, despite the fact that they’re in the same order of insects. The literal translation of the French term for moth, un papillon de nuit, literally means “butterfly of the night,” which is both a very delightful way to view a moth and a name that helps correct that terrible reputation.

8. Un hérisson

Hedgehog next to a toadstool
“So what if I’m prickly?” / Mike Powles/Stone/Getty Images

English translation:hedgehog

The French word for hedgehog is adorably descriptive: The verb form hérisser means “to ruffle” or “to make stand on end,” which is exactly what the spines on these spiky little animals do. The noun hérisson also has some other, less-common meanings, including use as a term for a grump—which works well, as we often describe cranky people as “spiky” or “prickly.”

9. Un porc-épic

Brazilian tree porcupine
“My name is derived from Italian.” / Martin Harvey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

English translation: “porcupine”

Though porc-épic looks like it could translate to “epic pig,” it’s actually derived from the Italian porcospino for “spiny pig.” The word was originally porc espi but transformed over the years. Most other Romance languages still keep the idea of “spines” in the porcupine’s name. Porc- épic, like hérisson, can also be used as slang to describe a prickly person—or someone with five o’clock shadow.

10. Un rouge-gorge

European robin on a branch with its mouth open
“I’m not sure why my name means ‘red throat’ when the color is more orange, either.” / Ger Bosma/Moment/Getty Images

English translation:robin

With rouge meaning “red” and gorge meaning “throat,” the term for a robin in French literally translates to “red throat.” (Fun fact: In many parts of the world, the robin is called “robin redbreast.”) Interestingly, the European bird that goes by robin is an Old World flycatcher, while the American bird is a thrush. The latter bird got its name from European settlers who thought it resembled the bird they were familiar with.

11. Un oiseau-mouche

Magenta-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox bryantae) feeding from flowers
“Just call me a ‘bird fly’!” / Christopher Jimenez Nature Photo/Moment/Getty Images

English translation:hummingbird

French has two names for the hummingbird: One, colibri, is straightforward—but the other, oiseau-mouche, literally translates to “bird fly” (oiseau means “bird” and mouche means “fly”). The name likely derives from the hummingbird’s small size (maybe not as small as a fly, but small nonetheless) and the fast flapping of its wings, which makes a humming sound sort of like the buzzing of a fly.

12. Une éphémère

Mayfly on a leaf
“My French name, ‘une éphémère,’ makes sense, non?” / Paul Starosta/Stone/Getty Images

English translation:mayfly

As an adjective, éphémère means “ephemeral” or “fleeting,” an apt and bittersweet descriptor for mayflies: They spend most of their lives in the water as nymphs but only live around a day as adults before the clock runs out. Perhaps there’s something to learn from them about living life to the fullest? 

13. Une sauterelle

Green grasshopper on a green leaf
“It makes sense that my name comes from a verb meaning ‘to jump’!” / CUHRIG/E+/Getty Images

English translation:grasshopper

The French word for grasshopper is derived from the verb sauter, meaning “to jump.” The suffix -elle is a diminutive form, so sauterelle can be translated as “little jumper.”

14. Un sanglier

Wild boar in the grass
“I’m no solitary pig!” / Erich Kuchling/Westend61/Getty Images

English translation:wild boar

Sanglier is derived from the Vulgar Latin singularis porcus, which translates to “solitary pig.” In the 14th Century, un porc sanglier was still used in French, but over time, the porc was dropped, leaving the wild boar as sanglier—meaning the animal’s name now emphasizes solitary rather than pig.   That’s kind of funny, considering pigs are typically social animals; it’s usually only the males who will be found on their own when they’re looking for a mate.

15. Une étoile de mer

Red starfish on light sand
“I’d rather go by ‘une étoile de mer,’ thanks.” / John White Photos/Moment/Getty Images

English translation:starfish

This one’s pretty self-explanatory: The literal translation of étoile de mer is “star of the sea” (from étoile for star and mer for sea), which seems much more poetic and magical than starfish in English—wouldn’t you agree?