Interesting Animal Names

Just double checking I spelled that correctly. After looking at panthers yesterday, I began thinking about other interesting animal names. One you might know is hippopotamus.

It’s a commonly-cited fact that the word means river horse. This comes from the Greek hippos (horse) and potamos (an adjective meaning related to a river).

Another aquatic horsey animal is of course the seahorse. I don’t need to explain the origins of that name, but its Latin name is interesting. The name of the genus which the 54 species of seahorses belong to is hippocampus. This was actually the Latin name for a mythical sea creature which resembled a horse, coming from the Greek hippos again, and kampos (sea monster). The seahorse’s equine and armoured appearance led to it being given the name. You might also be thinking that you heard someone refer to a hippocampus on Grey’s Anatomy or an old episode of ER. There is in fact an area of the brain called the hippocampus, named due to its resemblance to a seahorse.

Penguin, as I mentioned before, is probably one of the few English words to come from Welsh, with pen gwyn meaning white head. Speaking of birds, I’ll let you read this old post all about the word albatross (whose etymology is far too complex to explain again).

Rhinoceros is another one where some knowledge of Greek goes a long way. It literally means nose-horned, combining rhinos (nose) and keras (horn). Keras is also the origin of keratin (the protein that is the main substance of hair, nails, horns, and feathers).

Hyena actually comes from a Greek word for a female pig, due to the resemblance between the bristly hairs on the backs of both animals.

Kangaroo is the subject of another too-good-to-be-true story. It says that when Captain Cook arrived in Australia, he saw a kangaroo jumping around. He asked a native Australian what it was and he replied I don’t know in his native tongue, which sounded like kangaroo. We want it to be true, because it’s funny, but how would a native Australian not know what a kangaroo was? It’s more than likely a word in the Aboriginal Guugu Yimidhirr language, possibly simply meaning large animal.

And what about the word animal itself? It comes from the Latin animale (living being/being that breathes) from anima, meaning breath or soul. It actually wasn’t very common in English until the 17th century, when it started to edge out the word beast, which specifically referred to “lower animals” (as opposed to man), coming from the Latin bestia (beast, wild animal).

14 thoughts on “Interesting Animal Names

  1. Whenever I read one of your posts it gets me thinking of anything related. In this case, anima. This got me to think about the word animation, and it’s origins. Nothing is like a blog post inspiring an impromptu googling session to learn something new.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First of all I have to say that I love the photo you included, I don’t know why but it made my laugh. Second I love the story for kangaroo. Your posts always bring me new information that I never knew before, well done. xx

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  3. The editor of Cook’s journal states in a footnote that the name ‘kangaroo’ was ‘obtained’ by Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist on the Endeavour, but Cook used it a day or too before Banks did. Banks was aware of the difficulties of eliciting vocabulary:

    “the list of words I have given could be got no other manner than by signs enquiring of them what in their Language signified such a thing, a method obnoxious to many mistakes: for instance a man holds in his hand a stone and asks the name of [it]: the Indian may return him for answer either the real name of a stone, one of the properties of it as hardness, roughness, smoothness etc., one of its uses or the name peculiar to some particular species of stone, which name the enquirer immediately sets down as that of a stone. To avoid however as much as Possible this inconvenience Myself and 2 or 3 more got from them as many words as we could, and having noted down those which we though[t] from circumstances we were not mistaken in we compard our lists; those in which all the lists agreed, or rather were contradicted by none, we thought our selves moraly certain not to be mistaken in.”

    Even if Banks had been less careful, it doesn’t make sense that ‘kangaroo’ means ‘I don’t know’. Other versions of the story have the native word meaning ‘I don’t understand you’. Either way, Banks recorded 34 words, Cook 60 and Bank’s assistant Sydney Parkinson 147. If ‘kangaroo’ really meant ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’, it would have cropped up multiple times in the course of eliciting that many words.

    For possibly more than you want to know, and apologies for self-promotion, I have posted three times on the history of the word: https://neverpureandrarelysimple.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/kangaroo/ (which I wrote first)
    https://neverpureandrarelysimple.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/the-kangaroo-part-1/ (which I wrote second)
    https://neverpureandrarelysimple.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/kangaroo-part-3/

    All this information comes from my masters honours dissertation – I don’t do that much research for blog posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s some really interesting insight into the difficulties of even the seemingly simplest gestural translation, particularly if completely different cultures have different frames of references for the objects in question.

      Like

  4. And now “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” is stuck in my head.

    Also, about Kangaroo, it took me 22 years and my college Children’s Literature class to realize that in Winnie-the-Pooh, if you combine “Kanga” and “Roo” you get “Kangaroo”

    Liked by 1 person

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