Beyond Words - Language Blog

Ten Interesting Animal Etymologies

The animal kingdom brings us a wealth of fascinating, unusual, and enlightening etymologies from around the world. In this article, we explore ten of them.

Camel
This beast of burden traces its linguistic heritage from the Latin camelus and Greek kamelos. The word has resonances with the Arabic jamala, which means “to bear” or “to carry.”

Cheetah
This speedy runner derives its name from the Sanskrit chitra, which describes something with distinctive, multicolored markings.

Cobra
This venomous predator takes its name from the Portuguese cobra de capello, which means “serpent of the hood” or “hooded serpent.” These snakes are prevalent in certain regions of India, where Portuguese colonists bestowed this name on them. Alternately, the term Naja is used, from the Old Indic word meaning “snake.”

Crocodile
This ancient animal was first named krokodilos in Greece, from the roots kroke, meaning “pebbles,” and drilos, meaning “worm” due to its affinity for lounging in the sun and warming itself on the surrounding rocks.

Flamingo
These brightly-colored birds share their roots with all manner of fire-related terms. From the Greek phoinikopteros we have the Spanish flamengo, which made its way into English and means “flame-colored.”

Hippopotamus
These lumbering animals get their name from the Greek word meaning “horse of the river.” The term is composed of hippos, or “horse,” and potamos, meaning “river.”

Penguin
The likeliest etymology places this word as stemming from the Welsh compound word formed from pen, meaning “head,” and gwyn, meaning “white.”

Raccoon
These surreptitious mammals are named for the Algonquian word arakhun, meaning “scratches with the hands.”

Rhinoceros
These massive, tough-skinned creatures derive their names from their most pronounced feature: their horn. The term stems from the Latin rhinoceros and Greek rhinokeros, both of which take root in rhinos, or “nose”, and keras, meaning “horn.” A great many words in usage today feature these root words. Examples range from ear, nose, and throat specialists, called otolaryngologists, and plastic surgeons specializing in nose jobs, or rhinoplasty, to keratin treatments administered in spas and salons in order to smooth and tame hair by using key structural proteins that occur naturally in nails, animals’ horns, and hair.

Squirrel
These furry tree-dwellers take their name from the Greek skiouros, which literally means “shadow-tailed,” from skia (shadow) and oura (tail).

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About the Author:
Maria Khodorkovsky covers research at the intersection of language, psychology, and society for ALTA Language Services. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed, and on the websites of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament and the National Museum of Language. Maria studied Russian Translation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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