8 animal names and their real meanings

2 min read

Sure you know A is for Aardvark and Z is for Zebra, but have you ever thought about how some animals got their names? Blobfish is pretty self explanatory, but where did some of these other namesakes come from? Here are some animal names with truly wild origin stories.


The origins of this name aren’t one hundred percent clear, but the best guess is that “penguin” is a combination of pen and gwyn in Welsh. Put together, the two words mean white head. The name was once used for another type of sea bird, but has long since been adopted for the tuxedo birds we know today.

If you think “white head” is bad manners for referring to their bald appearance, just keep in mind that penguins used to have an even worse name: arsefeet!


Hippopotamus is a Greek word that means “river horse.” Hippos were likely named when the Ancient Greeks first entered Egypt and made their own words for the animals there. Like penguin, it’s a combination of words—hippos (horse) and potamos (river). Yes, someone thought a hippo looked like a horse swimming down the river. Maybe if you look from far away with one eye closed?


Here’s another Greek word mashup. Chameleon comes from chamai and leon, which mean “ground” and “lion” respectively. It has absolutely nothing to do with their camouflage capabilities, and you might have to squint a little before you see the lion in them.


The Greeks once again can take credit for this one. Hyena is a combination of hys, meaning hog or pig, and aina, a female suffix. In other words, a hyena is a female pig. Why female? We’re not sure. But the hog part may have something to do with their boar shape and the bristly hair on their backs.


Aardvark is another pig-related name, but this time with Dutch roots. It comes from the words aarde for Earth and varken for pig. This description is spot on, considering their appearance and their signature waddle.


Raccoon comes from an Algonquin word that means “the one who scratches with its hands.” The spelling of the original word is debated, as it was recorded differently by various people. Two possible versions are aroughcun and arathkone.


Skunk is derived from another Algonquin word, which again has an uncertain spelling. Segankw or segonku means “he who squirts.” Is there a more apt name for this smelly and deceptively cuddly-looking creature?


While the history behind the anaconda’s name is a little obscure, the most likely deduction is that it came from the Tamil word anaikkonda. It translates to “having killed an elephant.” If you’ve ever seen an anaconda, you’d probably see why.

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