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22 Brilliant Old Nicknames For Animals

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Dogs have been called pooches since the early 1900s. Rabbits have been called bunnies since the 18th century. And the earliest reference to a puss rather than a "cat" dates back as far as 1533. Not all animal nicknames like these survive from one generation to the next however, and the 22 listed here are amongst the most unusual that the English language has long since forgotten.

1. ARSEFOOT

Since Tudor times, a number of different water birds have been nicknamed arsefoot on account of their legs being positioned so far back on their bodies. The name was apparently first applied to the great crested grebe, but throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it came to be used of various species of ducks, loons, and even penguins—in his History of the Earth (1774), the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith explained how penguins, “like Indian canoes, are the swiftest [birds] in the water by having their paddles in the rear. Our sailors, for this reason, give these birds the very homely but expressive name of arse-feet.”

2. BALANCE-FISH

A 2nd century Roman poem about fishing, the Halieutica, makes reference to “the monstrous balance fish, of hideous shape.” It’s not entirely clear from the context what fish the poem is actually referring to, but the name eventually stuck as a nickname for the hammerhead shark and remained in use long into the 19th century.

3. BOBBY-DAZZLER

Bobby-dazzler is an old British English expression for anything of exceptionally good quality or striking appearance, like a doozy or a humdinger. According to The English Dialect Dictionary (1898), however, bobby-dazzler began life as a local name for a butterfly; bobby is an equally old-fashioned English dialect word for a plant covered in insects.

4. CANDLE-FLY

In his English Dictionarie, or An Interpreter of Hard English Words (1626), the lexicographer Henry Cockeram defined a candle-fly as “a flie that, hovering about a candle, burns itself”—in other words, a moth.

5. CARRY-CASTLE

In the Middle Ages, elephants were nicknamed carry-castles on account of their enormous size and strength. The image of the castle-carrying elephant is a particularly ancient one, no doubt inspired by tales of terrifying war-elephants from history (more on those later), and is nowadays used on various coats of arms and crests as a symbol of strength and resilience.

6. DUMBLEDORE

If you thought JK Rowling made the name “Dumbledore” up, think again—dor is an Old English word for a flying or buzzing insect, and dumbledore is actually an 18th century nickname for a bumblebee. In an interview in 1999, Rowling herself explained that she gave the wise old headmaster of Hogwarts the name because of his love of music: “Dumbledore … seemed to suit the headmaster,” she said, “because one of his passions is music, and I imagined him walking around humming to himself.”

7. EGG-SUCKER

The toucan was once nicknamed the egg-sucker because, according to one 19th century description, “it chiefly feeds on the eggs found in other birds’ nests.” Actually toucans chiefly feed on fruit, but they are nothing if not adaptable and have indeed been known to eat eggs and even nestlings—as well as insects, lizards, amphibians and small mammals—when the opportunity arises.

8. ESSENCE-PEDDLER

An old name for a travelling salesman who sells perfume and scent, in the late 19th century essence-peddler came to be used as a humorous nickname for the skunk. As an article in New York’s Knickerbocker magazine explained in 1860, “It is a vulgar mistake that the porcupine has the faculty of darting his quills to a distance, as the essence-peddler has of scattering his aromatic wares.”

9. FOX-APE

In the mid 17th century, a “fox-ape” that had been captured in Virginia and brought back to England was presented to the Royal Society in London. So called because it appeared to be “of a middle nature, between fox and ape,” according to the Society’s records, the creature had a “remarkable pouch … in the belly, into which, upon any occasion of danger, it can receive its young.” Today the fox-ape is called the opossum, an Algonquin name that literally means “white dog.”

10. HOTCHI-WITCHI

Hotchi-witchi is an old gypsy nickname for the hedgehog. Precisely what the name means is unclear, but it’s likely that the first part is an alternation of urchin (another old English name for the hedgehog) while the second is probably an old Romany word meaning something like “woodland,” or “forest.”

11. LUCANIAN OX

In 280BC, the Greek leader Pyrrhus invaded the Roman province of Lucania in an attempt both to liberate its people and to establish his own empire on Roman soil. Besides some 30,000 infantrymen, Pyrrhus brought with him 20 war elephants on loan from Ptolemy II of Egypt, which were dressed in thick armor and carried groups of archers high on their backs. The sight of Pyrrhus’s enormous war elephants unsurprisingly terrified the local Roman soldiers (and their horses), causing chaos on the battlefield and ultimately securing a Greek victory. With no idea of what these enormous creatures could be, the Romans called them Lucanian oxen, a name that remained in use for years to come.

12. MONKEY-BEAR

Because of their habit of climbing trees—and because they were once mistakenly believed to be bears rather than marsupials—koalas were known as monkey-bears in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were also once known as monkey-sloths, kangaroo-bears, and, among English immigrants in Australia in the early 1800s, native-bears.

13. MOULDWARP

Mould or mold is an Old English word for loose earth or rubble, while warp is an equally ancient word meaning to throw, or to scatter around. Put together, mouldwarp is an old nickname for a mole

14. ONOCROTALUS

Onos is the Ancient Greek word for an ass or a donkey (as in onocentaur, a centaur with the body of an ass rather than a horse), while a crotalus is another name for a castanet, or the clapper inside a bell. This literally makes an onocrotalus an “ass-clapper,” but despite appearances it’s actually an old nickname for the pelican. A footnote to the 1425 edition of the Wycliffe Bible helpfully explains that, “the Onocrotalus is an unclene bird, and hath a face like an ass.” Although the word has long since vanished from the language, the scientific name of the great white pelican is still Pelecanus onocrotalus.

15. PISMIRE

Many species of ants naturally produce formic acid, an irritant that they use in various ways to deter would-be predators or attackers. As if that weren’t unpleasant enough, formic acid smells faintly of urine, and so ants have been nicknamed pismires since the 14th century at least.

16. POLTROON TIGER

Poltroon tiger—alongside sneak-cat, pampas cat, Indian devil, catamountain, deer tiger and even bender lion—is an old 18th century name for the puma. Admittedly, no one is quite sure where the name comes from: a poltroon is a coward, so the name could be intended refer to how shy pumas are, or else to the fact that they can’t roar like other big cats. A poltroon can also be a mean-spirited or wicked person, which could refer to its stealthiness or dangerousness. But perhaps the most likely explanation is that the name refers to the puma’s ability to retract its claws, as in the 18th century a poltroon was a hawk or falcon that had had its talons clipped off.

17. QUICKHATCH

Derived from a vague English interpretation of its Cree name, kwĭkkwâhaketsh, the wolverine has been known as the quickhatch since the early 1600s. It’s also known as the skunk bear, the carcajou and the glutton, on account of its voracious appetite.

18. SPARROW-CAMEL

The Ancient Greeks called the ostrich the strouthokamelos, or “sparrow-camel,” apparently in reference to its long camel-like neck. The name was adopted into Latin (the scientific name for the ostrich is Struthio camelus) and eventually into English—a 19th century guide to natural history, Noah’s Ark, or Mornings In The Zoo (1882), explains that “the sparrow-camel … hardly deserves to be called a bird, and it is certainly not a beast.”

19. SULFUR-BOTTOM

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes a species of whale he calls the “sulfur bottom,” which has “a brimstone belly,” and is “seldom seen except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance.” While Moby-Dick itself is a sperm whale, here Ishmael is describing the blue whale, which has been known as the sulfur-bottom or sulphur-bottomed rorqual since the mid 18th century on account of the yellowish color of its underside.

20. WASHING-BEAR

Because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it, raccoons were once widely known as washing-bears. According to The Illustrated Natural History (1865), “when engaged in this curious custom [the raccoon] grasps the food in both its forepaws, and shakes it violently back and forward in the water.” The name was probably first adopted into English from Germany, where raccoons are still known as Waschbären, or “wash-bears.”

21. WINK-A-PUSS

Wink-a-puss is an old English nickname for an owl, but it was also once used as “an opprobrious appellation, in allusion perhaps to a mangy cat,” according to one 19th century glossary of The Devonshire Dialect (1837).

22. WITCH’S HORSE

In Scandinavian folklore, witches are often depicted as riding around on the backs of wolves, and hence wolves have been nicknamed witches’ horses since the early Middle Ages. The earliest English record of the name comes from a 13th century account of the death of the Harald III of Norway during a failed attempt to claim the English throne in 1066.

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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