Tracing the Etymology of the Animal Kingdom

2 min read

Sure, you know "A is for Aardvark" and "Z is for Zebra," but have you ever thought about how 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.

Penguin

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.

While some might think it rude to call out the noble penguin for its bald-looking appearance, it's better than a previous name: arsefeet.

Hippopotamus

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," hippopotamus is 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?

Chameleon

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, again, you might have to squint a little before you see the lion in them.

Hyena

The Greeks can take credit for this one as well. "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-like shape and the bristly hair on their backs.

Aardvark

"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 long snout and signature waddle.

Raccoon

"Raccoon" comes from an Algonquin word that means “the one who scratches with its hands.” The spelling is debatable, but two possible versions are aroughcun and arathkone.

Skunk

Pepé Le Pew may have been French, but "skunk" comes from another Algonquin word — segankw or segonku means “he who squirts.” Is there a more apt name for this smelly and deceptively cuddly-looking creature?

Anaconda

While anacondas are typically found in South America, the etymology for this snake likely comes from the Tamil word anaikkonda. It translates to “having killed an elephant.” If you’ve ever seen an anaconda, you’ll understand why.

Photo credit: Ian Parker/ Unsplash

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