12 Animals Whose Names Etymologically Describe Them


Now the names for these creatures big and small make total sense.

1. Porpoise, "pig fish"

The word porpoise can be traced to Latin porcopiscis, from the combination of porcus (pig) with piscis (fish). Round body, flat nose—sure, that makes sense.

2. Aardvark, "earth pig"

When you're not sure what it is, go with pig. Afrikaans, the offshoot of Dutch which is spoken in South Africa, gave us aardvark, from Dutch aarde (earth) + varken (pig). Must have been the nose and the pink skin.

3. Porcupine, "thorny pig"

Pig is such a versatile animal. When in doubt, go with pig! Porcupine comes from the Middle French porc (pig) + espin (from Latin spina, thorn). A thorny, spiky, pig. Well, it is round…

4. Hippopotamus, "river horse"

This one can be traced back to the Greek hippos (horse) + potamos (river). It likes to hang out in rivers, and while the Greeks might have been stretching things a bit by calling it a horse, at least they didn't go with porcopotamus.

5. Rhinoceros, "nose horn"

From the Greek rhino- (of or pertaining to the nose) and keras (horn, related to "keratin"). The nose horn certainly is the most noticeable feature of this animal. Let's hear it for sober, blunt description.

6. Octopus, "eight feet"

You already know the Greek octo- means eight from words like octagon. Pus (or pous) means foot, though we're used to seeing it in its combining form pod in words like podiatrist and tripod.

7. Orangutan, "man of the forest"

This comes from the Malay orang (person) + hutan (forest), meaning "person of the forest." Apparently the locals didn't originally call the animals orangutans, but Europeans somehow decided that this phrase referred to the furry orange apes. In any case, now there is a Malay word orang utan, meaning orangutan, alongside the native word mawas.

8. Squirrel, "shade tail"

Squirrel goes back to Medieval Latin scurellus, a diminutive of scurius, which goes back to the Greek skia (shade) + oura (tail). Squirrels use their tails to shade their bodies, and you can often see them holding them up like tiny, fluffy parasols. 

9. Chameleon, "dwarf lion"

Goes back to the Greek chamai (ground) + leon (lion). Chamai could also mean dwarf, or "low to the ground," so a chameleon is a dwarf lion. Not sure if the lion connection was inspired by the chameleon's mane-like head outline or cool, regal disposition. 

10. Armadillo, "little armored one"

The most notable thing about the armadillo is his protective, spiky armor. We took the name from Spanish, where armado means armed. Armadillo is the diminutive of armado—so it means little, bitty armed one.

11. Flamingo, "flaming, flame-colored"

Latin flamma (flame) handed down its flam- to many words in Romance languages having to do with fire. Flamingo was formed in the Provence dialect, which would sometimes combine Latin roots (flam) with Germanic endings (–ing). The flamingo is flaming, or flame-colored. The ending used in Provençal was actually –enc, yielding flamenco, the current Spanish word for flamingo.

12. Ferret, "little thief"

Ferret can be traced back to the Latin fur, for thief. It picked up the diminutive -et in French (or -etto in Italian), giving us this name that means little thief. The name seems pretty appropriate, judging by this video titled "Ferrets Stealing Stuff Compilation 2013." 

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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