Why We Call A Horse A Pony and Other Interesting Animal Nickname Origins

Monday, April 43 min read

The English language, especially American English, is a conglomeration of other languages, and everyday words and slang sometimes get misconstrued, leaving them with a new meaning. This type of mixup has happened a lot in the world of animal nicknames. “Bunny,” for example, was intended for an entirely different animal, and the word "pig" is widely misused. From “bunny” and “kitty” to “puppy” and “pony,” here are the fascinating origins of common animal names.


Powny, the Scottish word to describe a very small horse, has been around since the mid-17th century. Back then, the direct definition of a powny was a horse less than 13 hands tall. It likely came from a (now obsolete) French word, poulenet, that had roughly the same meaning: “little foal.” A foal, of course, is the technical term for a horse less than one-year-old, but in English (and especially among children) we commonly use the term pony instead. The modern definition of a pony is a horse of a small breed that is less than 58 inches (14 and a half hands) tall at the shoulder.

The usage of “pony” as an indicator of something smaller than usual has spilled over (literally and figuratively) into barware. As “pony” can also mean “something that is smaller than standard,” the pony glass comes in two styles: a quarter-pint of beer or a one-ounce shot (sometimes called a cordial glass).


Bunny” is the word most commonly used to refer to a baby rabbit (or just any rabbit, period), but it’s technically incorrect. A baby rabbit is actually called a “kitten” or “kit,” and a newborn hare (a mammal that resembles a large rabbit) is called a “leveret,” but collectively, we tend to call them all bunnies. “Bunny” comes from the Scottish language; the use of bun in Scottish dialects can be traced back to the late 16th century, when it was used to describe a squirrel. In the late 17th century, it took on a new name, referring to rabbits OR hares.


For over 500 years, “puppy” has been used to describe a small dog, although in the late 15th century, it was specifically “a woman’s small dog.” It likely came from the French word poupée, which means “doll” or “toy." The likely connection was that the small size of the dog resulted in it being petted and played with like a doll. In the 1590s, its direct meaning shifted from a “toy dog” to a “young dog,” which is how we still use it today. Around that time, it replaced the nearly obsolete word for puppy, “whelp,” which is now used as a verb for when a female dog gives birth.


“Kitty,” a term that is now used as slang for any cat, originated from the word “kitten,” which has been around for nearly 700 years. It is an Anglo-French variant of kitoun, from the earlier Old French chaton or chitoun, meaning “little cat.” The word “kitty” itself was first recorded in 1719 as another word for a "young cat."

The use of “Kitty” as a common nickname for “Catherine” started around the 16th century, and around that time, it was also used as a sort of synonym for a young girl. This means that using “kitty” to describe a young girl was actually used BEFORE “kitty” to describe a cat. Other historic definitions of “kitty” include its use as a noun for “the pool of money in a card game” (from late 19th century American English) and as another word for “jail” (from early 19th century England). Perhaps most obscurely, in the early 20th century, “to have kittens” meant “to lose one’s composure.”


It seems as though all the words for swine have become muddled over the centuries. Now, “pig,” “swine,” “hog,” and sometimes, “boar,” are used interchangeably, but there are differences between all of these terms. A “pig'' (from Middle English pigge) is technically the word for a young swine that isn’t an adult yet (similar to “puppy” or “kitten”) but instead, we usually use “piglet” or “piggy,” leaving “pig” for a much broader definition. The word “piggy” (also spelled “piggie”) has been used since the 18th century, to denote a “little pig.” A “hog” (from Old English hogge) is technically a swine that weighs over 120 pounds, but again, “hog” is usually used for any adult swine. Further differentiating the porcine creatures, a boar (from Old English bar) is a domestic male pig, and a sow (from Old English sugu or su) is a domestic female pig. There is some modern understanding of a boar as a wild pig with tusks, but the word technically applies to all uncastrated domestic male pigs (and some other species, including badgers, guinea pigs, and hedgehogs).

Featured image credit: DamianKuzdak/ iStock

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