How 20 Animals Got Their Names

The word animal derives from a Latin word for a "breath" or "soul," anima. Although it first appeared in English in the late 14th century, it remained fairly uncommon until the 1600s, when its use as a replacement for the older word beast—which once referred to any living creature, but today has wilder, more ferocious connotations—won out. Beast, in turn, was adopted into English from French sometime around the early 1200s. But just as it was eventually superseded by animal, beast itself took over from deer, which was used fairly loosely in Old English to refer to any wild animal.

Put another way, the history of animals and beasts is all a bit confusing—though thankfully, the individual names of different kinds of animals aren’t nearly as mixed-up. That’s not to say they don’t have their own stories to tell, though.

1. Penguin

No one is entirely sure why penguins are called penguins (not helped by the fact that they were once upon a time called arsefeet), but the best theory we have is that penguin is a corruption of the Welsh pen gwyn, literally “white head.” The name pen gwyn originally applied to the great auk, an enormous flightless black-and-white seabird of the North Atlantic, and it's presumed that sailors to the South Atlantic either confused the flightless black-and-white seabirds they saw there for auks, or just used the same word for both creatures.

2. Albatross

This is a strange one: In the 16th century, the Arabic word for a sea eagle, al-ghattas, was borrowed into Spanish and became the Spanish word for a pelican, alcatraz (which is where the island with the prison gets its name). Alcatraz was then borrowed into English and became albatross in the late 17th century—but at each point in history, the word applied to completely different animals. An alternative theory claims that albatross and Alcatraz might actually be unrelated, and instead, albatross could be derived from a Portuguese word, alcatruz, for one of the troughs that carried the water around a waterwheel. Even if that’s the case, however, the word still probably began life as another name for a pelican, with the bucket of the waterwheel probably alluding to the pelican’s enormous bill pouch.

3. Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros literally means “nose-horned.” The rhino– part is the same as in words like rhinoplasty, the medical name for a nose job, while the –ceros part is the same root found in words like triceratops and keratin—the tough, fibrous protein that makes up our hair and nails and rhino horns.

4. Ostrich

The English word ostrich is a corruption of the Latin avis struthioavis meaning “bird” and struthio being the Latin word for the ostrich itself. In turn, struthio comes from the Greek name for the ostrich, strouthos meagle, which literally means “big sparrow.”

5. Hippopotamus

A hippo with its mouth open

Hippopotamus literally means “river horse” in Greek. It might not look much like a horse, but it certainly lives in rivers—and let’s be honest, it looks more like a horse than an ostrich looks like a sparrow.

6. Raccoon

Raccoon is derived from an Algonquin word that literally means “he scratches with his hands.” Before that was adopted into English, raccoons were known as “wash-bears” (and still are in several other languages, including Dutch and German), which refers to their habit of washing their food before eating it.

7. Moose

Moose, too, is thought to be an Algonquin word, literally meaning “he strips it off,” a reference to the animal’s fondness for tearing bark off trees. Likewise, muskrat is perhaps a derivative of an Algonquin name meaning “it is red.”

8. Tiger

Our word tiger goes all the way back to Ancient Greek, but the Greeks in turn borrowed the word from Asia, and it’s a mystery where the word actually originated. One theory is that it comes from tighri, a word from Avestan (an ancient Iranian language) that literally means “arrow” or “sharp object,” but that’s only conjecture. Speaking of big cats …

9. Leopard

Confusingly, leopard literally means “lion-panther” or “lion-leopard.” Variations of the word pard have been used to mean “leopard” or “panther” since the days of Ancient Greek, while leon was the Greek, and eventually Latin, word for a lion. The word lion itself, meanwhile, is so old that its origins probably lie in the impossibly ancient languages from which Egyptian hieroglyphics derived. Another confusing big cat name is …

10. Cheetah

Cheetah on the hunt

It derives from chita, which is the Hindi word for “leopard” and in turn probably comes from a Sanskrit word literally meaning “spotted.”

11. Python

In Greek mythology, the Python was an enormous dragon-like serpent that was slain by the legendary hero Apollo. Apollo left the serpent’s corpse to rot in the heat of the sun, and the site of its death eventually became the site of the oracle of Delphi (known as Pytho, to the Ancient Greeks). Ultimately, the name python itself derives from a Greek word literally meaning “to rot.”

12. Anaconda

The anaconda’s name is a lot harder to explain. Although anaconda are only found in South America, it’s likely that the name was brought there from elsewhere. One likely theory claims that it might once have referred to an enormous snake of southeast Asia that was known by a Tamil name, anaikkonda, literally meaning “having killed an elephant.”

13. Hyena

The name hyena traces back to the Greek word for a pig or a boar, hys, which apparently refers to the spiny hairs on the animal’s back.

14. Walrus

Walrus was borrowed into English in the 18th century from Dutch, but it may have its origins in the Old Norse word rosmhvalr, which came from another name for walrus, morse. Before then, walruses were known as sea-elephants, sea-oxen, sea-cows, and even sea-horses.

15. Panda

A panda in a tree

Panda was borrowed into English in the early 1800s, when it originally referred exclusively to what we’d now call a red panda; in reference to the giant black-and-white panda, the word only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when it was erroneously thought to be related to the red panda. Either way, panda is thought to come from a Nepali word, Nigálya-pónya, that might literally mean something like “cane-eating cat-bear.”

16. Octopus

Octopus literally means “eight-footed” not, despite what many people think, “eight-armed” or “eight-legged.” Also contrary to popular belief, the plural of octopus really isn’t octopi. It would be if octopus were a Latin word (in which case its plural would follow the same rules as words like fungi and alumni), but octopus is actually derived from Ancient Greek roots. So to be absolutely, pedantically correct, the plural of octopus should be octopodes—but why complicate things? Feel free just to call more than one octopus a group of octopuses.

17. Tortoise

No one is entirely sure why tortoises are called tortoises, although it’s fair to say that none of the theories we have to choose from is particularly flattering. On the one hand, tortoise might be a derivative of a Latin word, tartaruchus, literally meaning “of the underworld.” On the other, it might come from the Latin tortus, meaning “twisted” (which is also where the adjective tortuous derives from). The actual Latin name for the tortoise, testudo, was much simpler, however: it simply means “shelled.”

18. Meerkat

The name meerkat was borrowed into English from Afrikaans, the Dutch-origin language spoken in South Africa. In its native Dutch however, meerkat is another name for the guenon, a type of monkey found in sub-Saharan Africa. How did the two words become confused? No one knows.

19. Kangaroo

There’s an old folk etymology that claims kangaroo means “I don’t know.” According to the story, on his arrival in Australia, Captain Cook asked a native Australian what the bizarre looking creatures bounding around in the distance were. He replied, in his native language, “I don’t know”—which, to Captain Cook, sounded something like “kangaroo.” It’s a neat story, but likely an apocryphal one, not least because the chances of a native Australian not knowing what a kangaroo was are pretty slim. Instead, it’s likely kangaroo likely derives from a local Guugu Yimidhirr word, perhaps simply meaning “large animal.”

20. Platypus

A platypus swimming

And lastly, staying in Australia, the duck-billed platypus’s name literally means “flat-footed.” Bonus fact: Because of its bizarre appearance, the platypus was also once known as the duck-mole.

This list first ran in 2016.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary


Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]