Black Panther

This isn’t about the film at all, I’ll let you know right now. The title is a blatant, shameless attempt to trick people into reading this. But now that you’re here, haven’t you ever wanted to learn more about the words leopard and panther?

Leopard is an interesting word, partly because pronouncing it correctly is tricky for non-native speakers. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other words where eo has the /e/ sound, so a lot of people end up pronouncing it phonetically, like lee-o-pard. Even if this sounds odd to us English speakers, etymologically it kind of makes sense.

You see, the leo part of leopard refers to lions. Like in the star sign Leo. The word comes from the Latin leopardus, literally meaning lion-panther. When Europeans first spotted leopards, they believed them to be hybrids of lions and panthers (which kind of makes sense if you think of a leopard as combining the colours of a lion and the body of a panther). The Latin name for a leopard is Panthera pardus. Panthera is the genus (including lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards), and pardus, referring to the specific species, literally means male panther. So in one way, the name is quite redundant, literally meaning male panther panther, basically. But in another way, it seems somewhat ill-chosen, because you might well look at a leopard and say, That’s not a panther!

And you’d be right. But then what if I told you that there’s no such thing as a panther?

Shocking, I know, but true, in a way. When I told you earlier that a leopard was believed to be a hybrid of a lion and panther, you probably pictured a lion and a big, sleek, black cat. But panther in this case actually refers to a mythical creature, basically a big cat with a multicoloured coat (I don’t know why people liked just making up animals in ancient times). The panther you pictured is specifically a black panther. Even then though, you could argue that a black panther doesn’t exist.

Except they do of course, because you’ve seen them in the zoo. The thing is though, that a black panther is specifically a black (melanistic) version of any black cat. That being said, there have never been cases of melanistic lions and tigers (though there are white ones), and most melanistic black cats are either leopards or jaguars, which look very similar when you can’t see their different spot patterns.

So yes, there is such a thing as a black panther, but if you encouter one alone in the jungle, be sure to take a moment to try to identify whether it’s a leopard or a jaguar.

9 thoughts on “Black Panther

  1. “when Europeans first spotted Leopards 😜 good one!

    A bit of good old fashioned classification first thing in the morning – bring it on. Love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had an idea to post about panthers last week, but didn’t. The textbook has a true story about two friends lost in the Bolivian jungle. Before listening to the story, I elicited some dangers of the jungle. One student said “An animal can eat you”. I said “Which animal?”. Someone said “A lion”. I said “Where do lions live?”. Someone said “Africa”. I said “Which other animal?”. Someone said tiger etc. Then someone said panther. Ummm … quick type into a Major Search Engine shows that panthers are in … Penrith …. New South Wales … my suburb .

    The local rugby league team is nicknamed the Panthers after a long-standing rumour of sightings of a panther/large black cat/something in the nearby Blue Mountains. The club owns a large food/entertainment complex in the suburb.

    Actually, the animal in the story was a jaguar, and the photo in the book was spotted. And no-one got eaten.

    The name Leonard (from the same source) also has /e/.

    The panther is like a leopard,
    Except it hasn’t been peppered.
    Should you behold a panther crouch,
    Prepare to say Ouch.
    Better yet, if called by a panther,
    Don’t anther. (Ogden Nash)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The next time I find myself facing a large black alone in the jungle I will be sure to think very carefully about which particular species might be about to eat me for lunch. If I identify him correctly first will he allow me to live (like with sphinxes)? Also, if he crossed my path at all first can I count it as good luck? 😉 Fascinating post, thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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