16 Words Derived From Animals

iStock/hkuchera
iStock/hkuchera

The origins of words quite often provide a few unexpected surprises, not least when a selection of seemingly random terms like cantaloupe, dandelion, and schlong all end up being descended from the names of different types of animals. From bears and storks to singing wolves and castrated sheep, all 16 of the words listed here have surprising zoological origins.

1. Arctic

Vintage constellation map of Ursa Major
iStock/sergeyussr

The Arctic takes its name from the Greek word for “bear,” arktos. Oddly, the bear in question isn’t a polar bear but the Great Bear, or Ursa Major, the constellation that maintains a prominent year-round position in the northern sky. As a result, the adjective arctic originally referred to the celestial rather than the geographical North Pole when it first appeared in English more than 700 years ago. It wasn’t until the mid-1500s that it first came to be used of the northernmost regions of the Earth.

2. Bellwether

A group of sheep
iStock/badmanproduction

A bellwether is a leader or trendsetter, and in particular a stock or product whose performance is seen as an indicator of the overall strength of a market. In the Middle Ages, however, a bellwether was originally the lead animal in a flock of sheep: wether is an old English dialect word for a castrated ram, and the lead wether in a flock would typically have a bell hung around its neck to help identify it.

3. Canopy

A mosquito on skin
iStock/W1zzard

In Ancient Greece, a kanopeion—from konops, the Greek word for “mosquito”—was a chair or couch fitted with a mosquito net over it. As time went by, the name came to apply only to the net rather than the chair, which ultimately gave us the word canopy In the early 14th century. The French canapé is derived from the same root, and refers to the fact that a canapé’s filling sits on top of the pastry in the same way that a person sits on a couch.

4. Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe melons are said to take their name from Cantalupo, an ancient papal estate on the outskirts of Rome where the first European cantaloupes were reportedly grown in the early Middle Ages. In turn, Cantalupo took its name from the Latin words cantare, meaning “to sing” (as in chant and incantation), and lupus, meaning “wolf,” and probably originally referred to a place where wolves could often be heard howling or seen gathering together.

5. Dandelion

Big lion lying on savannah grass
iStock/NiseriN

Dandelion is a corruption of the French dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” a reference to the flowers’ jagged or “toothed” leaves.

6. Dauphin

The title once held by the eldest son of the king of France, dauphin is actually the French word for “dolphin.” From the mid-14th century right up to the early 1800s, two stylized dolphins were depicted on the dauphin’s coat of arms, but precisely why the eldest prince of France came to be identified with a sea creature remains a mystery.

7. Exocet

Close-up of a flying fish against blue and cloudy sky
iStock/swedishmonica

An exocet is a type of marine missile first developed by the French Navy in the late 1960s. Its name is the French word for a flying fish.

8. Formication

Formication is the medical name for a creeping, tingling sensation felt on the skin, similar to pins and needles, which takes its name from the Latin word for “ant,” formica; it literally describes a sensation similar to insects crawling over the skin. As a symptom, formication is associated with a whole range of conditions, from anxiety and general emotional distress to shingles, neuralgia, alcohol withdrawal, Parkinson’s disease, and even mercury poisoning.

9. Harum-Scarum

Meaning “reckless” or “disorganized,” no one is quite sure where the term harum-scarum comes from, but a likely theory is that it is an old dialect corruption of hare and scare, probably in reference to a hunter’s dogs scaring rabbits and hares from their cover.

10. Henchman

A stallion playing
iStock/mari_art

The “hench” of henchman came from hengest, an Old English word for a horse. The term originally referred to a knight or servant who would accompany a nobleman on horseback on long journeys.

11. Pedigree

Although today it is used more generally to mean “lineage” or “heritage,” a pedigree was originally a genealogical diagram, like a family tree, showing relatives and their relations connected to one another by lines drawn from one generation to the next. It was these flat, broad, hooked lines that originally gave the pedigree its name, as scholars in Medieval France thought that they resembled a pied-de-grue—or a stork’s foot.

12. Schlong

Black snake looking at the camera
iStock/RightOne

This derives from the Yiddish word for “snake,” shlang. Say no more.

13. Sniper

Dating back to the early 19th century, a sniper was originally someone who literally shot snipe. The birds have long been considered one of the hardest types of game to shoot due both to their speed in flight and their nervous disposition, making it necessary to shoot at them from a distance rather than risk disturbing them by moving closer.

14. Sturdy

European Song Thrush deep in winter snow
iStock/rekemp

Nowadays, sturdy is used to mean “robust” or “solid,” but when it first appeared in English way back in the 14th century it was used to mean something more along the lines of “unruly” or “unmanageable.” Its precise origin is unclear, but at least one theory claims it comes from the Latin word for “thrush,” turdus, as thrushes apparently once had a reputation for eating leftover and partly fermented grapes at wineries. This would make the birds behave frenziedly and drunkenly, and it is this bizarre behavior that initially inspired the word—the saying soûl comme une grive, or “as drunk as a thrush,” is still used in French today.

15. Tragedy

Tragedy probably has one of the most peculiar etymologies in the entire English language: it derives from a Greek word, tragoedia, literally meaning “goat song.” Why? Well, one theory claims it comes from actors in Ancient Greece dressing in furs and animal hides to portray legendary animals (like goat-legged satyrs) in performances of dramas and tragedies, but the true origin of the word remains a mystery.

16. Treacle

Treacle—the British word for molasses, or else a byword for anything overly sentimental and sweet—first appeared in English in the early 1400s, when it was originally used as a word for a medicine or antidote used to treat snakebites. In this context it comes from therion, a general Ancient Greek word for any wild animal.

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

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

16 Buggy Ways to Say Mosquito

LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images
LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images

It’s summertime, and you know what that means: attack of the mosquitoes. You might be one of a lucky type who rarely attract bites, or you might be someone skeeters love to feast on. If you’re the latter, you’ll want plenty of ammunition for name-calling (and plenty of chickens, apparently). Luckily, we’ve teamed up with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you some ways people across the U.S. refer to the bloodsuckers, and a couple of bonus terms from outside the States too.

1. Maringouin

Referring especially to a large mosquito, this Louisiana term is French in origin and ultimately comes from marigoui, which is Tupi-Guarani, a South American Indian language family. According to American Speech, maringouin is Creole dialect “used as early as 1632” and recurring “regularly from that time on in the letters and narratives of explorers and missionaries.” Good to have on hand would be the mangeur maringouin, a bird also known as the chuck-will’s-widow, and Louisiana French for “mosquito eater.”

2. Swamp Angel

A swamp angel is anything but, at least where skeeters are concerned. Used especially in the South and South Midland regions, the term swamp angel is often used by "old-timers," according to a 2002 quote captured in DARE from the St. Petersburg Times.

3., 4., AND 5. Gallinipper, Katynipper, and Nipper

Also known as a gabber napper, a galliwopper, and a granny-nipper, gallinipper is used in the South, South Midland, and especially the South Atlantic.

While a quote from the 1906 book The Parson’s Boys asserts that gallinippers are so-called “because at each ‘nip’ they took a gallon,” according to DARE, the origin of the term is unknown, having been “much altered” by folk-etymology and “other processes.” A connection might be gally, which means to frighten or confuse.

The earliest citation of gallinipper in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1801. However, DARE antedates that by over 200 years with this choice quote from New England’s Prospect by William Wood: “The third is Gurnipper ... her biting causeth an itching upon the hands or face, which provoketh scratching.”

In Tennessee, katynipper is used, while according to the OED, nipper refers to a large mosquito in Newfoundland.

6. Snow Mosquito

A snow mosquito is a “large, early-season mosquito,” according DARE, that comes "out under the snow” and “only for two or three weeks in the spring.” The term, and the insect itself, might be found in California, Alaska, and Wyoming. A 1962 book called Quoth the Raven describes the bugs as “clumsy, heavy fliers” with a “droning hum, like that of an airplane,” which “gives ample warning of their presence and makes an offensive against them easy.”

7. Nighthawk

Nighthawk might be your next hair metal band name, but it's also an epithet for the mosquito, as quoted in North Carolina. Other definitions in DARE include a kind of bird, a kind of worm, a nickname in the West for “a ranch hand in charge of horses or cattle at night,” and a euphemism for a chamber pot in Georgia.

Another name of the nighthawk bird is mosquito hawk. According to the Linguistic Atlas of the United States by Lee Pederson, the “skeeter hawk is a cuckoo [sic] bird that catches mosquitoes.” It’s also a dragonfly, at least in the South and scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley, so called “from their continually hunting after Muskeetoes, and killing and eating them,” according to The Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737.

8. Brasshead

Brasshead is a mosquito moniker you might hear in northwest Florida. Where it comes from isn’t clear—perhaps the insect’s yellow coloring, the hardness of its stinging proboscis, or its audacity for biting.

9. Drill Bug

You can also call the piercing pests drill bugs, as one might do in Illinois.

10. Mitsy

This deceptively cute shortening of mosquito might be heard in Ohio.

11. Mossie

Another abbreviation, mossie is primarily Australian slang, according to the OED. Its earliest citation is from 1916: “You won't be eaten by mosquitoes outside if you get on the breezy side. The ‘mossies’ haven't gone out of the house yet.”

12. Cousin

If you’re in Virginia and hear someone complaining about cousins, they might have annoying relatives—or they might be annoyed by mosquitoes. Why cousins? “Because they are so many and they stick so close,” according to a quote in DARE.

13. Paul Bunyon Mosquito

You guessed it: an extra-big one. Named for the mythical giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan mosquito is a term that might be used in Michigan.

14. Texas Mosquito

A way of describing a biter as big as Texas. A 1900 issue of the Ft. Wayne Sentinel of Indiana claims that while “much has been written about the Jersey mosquito,” the “proper kind of a press agent” might make the Texas mosquito “head and heels over his brethren in New Jersey.”

15. Snipe

This term might come from the mosquito’s resemblance to the snipe bird and its long bill. According to a 1872 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the story that some “Philadelphia sportsmen” shot at “New Jersey mosquitos,” thinking that they were snipe, is “an invention.” The City of Brotherly Love residents apparently “knew what the insects were, but despaired of killing them in any other way.”

16. Jersey Mosquito

So what’s the deal with Jersey mosquitoes, and why is this appellation for a hefty skeeter named for the state?

It doesn’t have to do with the size of the state but where it comes from: the salt marshes of New Jersey. They are “notorious,” say Lester A. Swann and Charles S. Papp in their 1972 book, Common Insects of North America, as well as “fierce biters and strong fliers” who “attack in full sunlight.” Variations on this chiefly Northeast saying include Jersey bird, Jersey bomber, Jersey eagle, and Jersey robin. The phrase may sometimes be pronounced Joisey mosquito.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER