How 20 Animals Got Their Names

iStock.com/NeilBradfield
iStock.com/NeilBradfield

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 But just as it was eventually superseded by animal, beast itself took over from deer, which was used fairly loosely in Old English to refer to any wild animal.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
iStock.com/nattanan726

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
iStock.com/Kandfoto

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
iStock.com/DennisvandenElzen

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
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

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.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

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

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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