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).