Etymology of mammal names in English

Etymology of animal names

Adapted from: Wikipedia, OED, the superb Oxford New Encyclopedia of Mammals, the excellent Etymonline + more sources- Please Contact me with suggestions. 


  • From the Afrikaans / Dutch for “earth pig” ( aarde earth, varken pig), because early settlers from Europe thought it resembled a pig .


  • From Spanish. armadillo, dim. of armado “armored,” from Latin. armatus, pp. of armare “to arm”


  • The name badger is possibly derived from the word badge , on account of the marks on the head. An older term for “badger” is brock ( Old English brocc ), a Celtic loanword ( Gaelic broc , Welsh broch , from Proto-Celtic *brokko ). Note: Dachshund From German. Dachshund, from Dachs, from common I.E. word for “badger” + Hund “dog.. See badgers in Spain


  • The Proto-Indo-European word for bear, h?ktos (ancestral to the Greek arktos , Latin ursus , Welsh arth (c.f. Arthur ), Sanskrit ??? , Hittite hartagga ) seems to have been subject to taboo deformation or replacement (as was the word for wolf , wlk w os ), – because of hunters’ taboo on names of wild animals in the northern branches – resulting in the use of numerous unrelated words with meanings like “brown one” (English bruin ) and “honey-eater” (Slavic medved ). Thus four separate Indo-European language groups do not share the same Proto Indo European root. In the Finnish countryside (so claims wikipedia), the word for “bear” remains taboo to this day. The theory of the bear taboo is taught to almost all beginning students of Indo-European and historical linguistics; the putative original PIE word for bear is itself descriptive, because a cognate word in Sanskrit is rakshas , meaning “harm, injury” See bears in Spain
  • The Smithsonian National Zoological Park notes:” Ursus arctos is the scientific name not for the Arctic-living polar bear ( Ursus maritimus ), but for the brown (or grizzly) bear. This designation is rather redundant, as ursus is the Latin word for “bear” and arctos comes from arktos , the Greek word for bear. The derivation of these twin terms, however, is a stellar story.

    According to Greek myth, the god Zeus fell in love with and impregnated Callisto, a young attendant of Artemis (the goddess of the hunt). As punishment, Callisto was transformed by Hera or Artemis (depending on the version of the myth) into a bear, or by Zeus to evade Hera’s notice. Zeus eventually summoned Callisto into the heavens to become the constellation Arktos, later known as Ursa Major in Latin. Callisto’s son, Arcas, himself is said to have turned into the constellation Bootes, adjacent to his mother’s domain, Ursa Major. Because of the position of these constellations in the northern skies, the word “Arctic” came to refer to the northern polar region. (Polaris, the North Star, itself is part of the Ursa Minor constellation.) “


  • From Russian. beluga, lit. “great white,” from belo- “white” + augmentative suffix -uga


  • From Turkish karakulak for “black ear” in reference to the most conspicuous feature of the caracal: its long, tufted black ears.


  • Thought to come from a Native North-American Mi’kmaq word meaning “one that paws (the ground)”.


  • From Hindi chita “leopard,” ultimately from from Sanskrit word Chitraka meaning “Speckled”


  • ” The first use of the name “chimpanzee”, however, did not occur until 1738. The name is derived from an Angolan Bantu language term “Tshiluba kivili-chimpenze”, which is the local name for the animal and translates loosely as “mockman” or possibly just “ape”. The colloquialism ” chimp ” was most likely coined some time in the late 1870s. Science would eventually take the ‘pan’ occurring in ‘chim pan zee’ and attribute it to Pan , a rural ancient Greek god of nature . Biologists would apply Pan as the genus name of the animal. Chimps as well as other apes had also been purported to have existed in ancient times, but did so mainly as myths and legends on the edge of Euro-Arabic societal consciousness, mainly through fragmented and sketchy accounts of European adventurers… When chimpanzees first began arriving on the European continent, European scientists noted the inaccuracy of these ancient descriptions, which often falsely reported that chimpanzees had horns and hooves. The first of these early trans-continental chimpanzees came from Angola and were presented as a gift to the Prince of Orange in 1640, and were followed by a few of its brethren over the next several years. Scientists who examined these rare specimens were baffled, and described these first chimpanzees as ” pygmies “, and noted the animals’ distinct similarities to humans. The next two decades would see a number of the creatures imported into Europe, mainly acquired by various zoological gardens as entertainment for visitors. ” Wikipedia

Note. The original Latin name for the chimpanzee was Troglodytes niger, but, following the first-come-first-served rules of zooloogical nomenclature, this had to be relinquished as a genus (for both chimps and gorillas) as Troglodytes had already been applied to the wren, though chimps got to keep troglodytes as the species descriptor (Pan troglodytes)


  • From Ancient Greek, delphis meaning “with a womb”, viz. “a ‘fish’ with a womb”.


  • From Anglo-Norman dormeus “sleepy (one)”; the word later altered by folk etymology to resemble word ” mouse “. Dormice can hibernate six months out of the year, or even longer if the weather remains sufficiently cool, sometimes waking for brief periods to eat food they had previously stored nearby. The sleepy behaviour of the Dormouse character in Lewis Carroll ‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland attests to this trait. The Spanish “dormir como un lirón” (to sleep like a dormouse) means (evidently) “to sleep like a log”.


  • From Malay duyung meaning lady of the sea or mermaid.

Duck billed platypus

  • When the Platypus was first discovered by Europeans in the late 1700s, a pelt was sent back to the United Kingdom. The British scientists were at first convinced that the seemingly odd collection of physical attributes must be a hoax. It was thought that somebody had sewn a duck’s beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal. The scientific name Ornithorhynchus is derived from “ornithorhynkhos”, which literally means “bird snout” in Greek , and anatinus means “duck-like”. The common name is Latin platypus , derived from the Greek words “platys”, flat and “pous”, foot, meaning “flat foot” and was originally given to it as a Linnaean genus name, but it was discovered to already belong to the wood-boring ambrosia beetle (genus Platypus ). Romance languages, however, kept the original term – eg Spanish ornitorrinco.There is no universally agreed upon plural of “platypus”. Scientists generally use “platypuses”, “platypoda”, or simply “platypus”. Colloquially, “platypi” is also used for the plural, although this is spurious pseudo-Latin . (The true plural would be “platypodes”.)Australian Aborigines call the Platypus by many names including mallangong , boondaburra , and tambreet.


  • O.E. fox, from W.Gmc. fukhs – corresponding to Proto Indo European IE puk– “tail” (cf. Skt. puccha– “tail”). Bushy tail motif is also the source of words for “fox” in Welsh ( llwynog, from llwyn “bush”); Sp/Port ( raposa, from rabo “tail”); Lith. ( uodegis “fox,” from uodega “tail”).


  • From It. giraffa, from Arabic. zarafa, probably from an African language


  • Gorilla is recently coined word and its story would read like a modern myth if it weren’t so well documented. U.S. missionary Thomas Savage first used it in 1847 to call the apes ( Troglodytes gorills ) from the Greek gorillai, the name given to wild, hairy tribe of women, in the Greek . translation of Carthaginian navigator Hanno’s account of his voyage along the N.W. coast of Africa, in 5th or 6th century B.C . European exloreres as late as the early 19th century thought gorillas were a “savage people” not an animal. Gorillas in the 19th century were grossly misrepresented in both scientific and popular writing, their supposed ferocity later hyperbolised in the King Kong story,. This piece published in the Illustrated London News was published in the same year as the Origin of the Spacies. I found it in Richard Dawkins’ excellent The Ancestor’s Tale. Dawkins introduces it with:

This piece is replete with falsehoods of a quantity and magnitude that try even the high standards set by travellers’ tales of the time:

… a close inspection is almost an impossibility, especially as the moment it sees a man it attacks him. The strength of the adult male being prodigious, and the teeth heavy and powerful, it is said to watch, concealed in the thick branches of the forest trees, the approach of any of the human species, and, as they pass under the tree, let down its terrible hind feet, furnished with an enormous thumb, grasp its victim round the throat, lift him from the earth, and, finally, drop him on the ground dead. Sheer malignity prompts the animal to this course, for it does not eat the dead man’s flesh, but finds a fiendish gratification in the mere act of killing.

  • There are now considered to be two species of gorilla, The Western Gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla ) and the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei), each of which is divided into at least two subspecies. The Eastern Gorilla was “discovered” by Europeans as late as 1902 by one Captain von Beringe who discovered “discovered” it by shooting one, and was rewarded by having it named after him. (eg here )


From the Greek hippopotamos , hippos meaning “horse” and potamos meaning “river”,


from Greek. hyaina “swine” (fem.), from hys “pig.”

Hyrax See rabbit below


The word jaguar comes from the South American Tupi-Guarani language. The original and complete indigenous name for the species is Yaguareté , where – eté means “true”. Yagua means “fierce” in Guarani . .


From O.Fr. lebard, leupart, from L.L. leopardus, lit. “lion-pard,” from Gk. leopardos, from leon “lion” + pardos “male panther,” which generally is said to be connected to Skt. prdakuh “panther, tiger.” The animal was thought in ancient times to be a hybrid of these two species.


The word kangaroo derives from the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimidhirr word gangurru , referring to a grey kangaroo. The name was first recorded on 4 August 1770 , by to-be Captain James Cook. Kangaroo soon became adopted into standard English where it has come to mean any member of the family of kangaroos and wallabies. The word Kangaroo is said to be the first word in any Australian Aboriginal language uttered by a European., in this case Captain Cook. The belief that it means “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” is a popular myth that is also applied to many other Aboriginal-sounding Australian words. Wallaby is from native Australian wolaba.


Coined by Linnaeus, from L. lemures (pl.) “spirits of the dead” in Roman mythology, in reference to the lemur’s nocturnal habits and large, reflective eyes.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park notes:

” The evolution of this Latin word has its own haunted history. According to ancient mythology, the city of Rome was founded by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who had been suckled by a she-wolf as babies. Arguing over who should rule the new city, Romulus murdered Remus and named the city after himself. But the ghost of the fallen brother haunted Rome from then on. Every May, citizens of Rome would hold a festival-first called Remuria, but later corrupted to Lemuria-to expiate the ghost of Remus and other ancestral spirits. From this tradition grew the word lemures , one of several Latin words-including larva , the shell of a ghost-used to refer to various forms of phantom. “Lemuria” also is the name of a mythological sunken super-continent, akin to Atlantis, once believed to lie in the Indian Ocean-coincidentally near the real lemur’s native home. “


Probably from Sweedish menk.


“burrowing mammal,”, probably from obsolete mouldwarp, lit. “earth-thrower” from O.E. molde “earth, soil”


Mongoose is derived from the Indian language Marathi word mangus, the Eng. word being altered by folk-etymology. .The plural form of mongoose is typically written mongooses . The form mongeese is incorrect since the words goose and mongoose are linguistically unrelated.


From mus or mooz in several of the Algonquian languages , meaning “twig eater.” or from moosu “he strips off,” in reference to the animals’ stripping bark for food.)


Thoroughly Indo-European , (Sanskrit. mus “mouse, rat”) The Ancient Romans did not generally differentiate between rats and mice, instead referring to the former as Mus Maximus (big mouse) and the latter as Mus Minimus (little mouse or Minnie Mouse, perhaps). The same distinction still exist today e.g in Spanish ratón and rata.


The name “narwhal” is derived from the Old Norse word náhvalr , meaning “corpse whale”. This probably is a reference to the mottled white and grey colouring of the skin of the adult. It may also refer to the way a narwhal can lie belly up, motionless, for a few minutes at a time.


Ultimately stemming from a root which apparently also gave rise to the English words “water”, “wet” and “winter”. (cf. Skt. udrah, “otter – water creature from root *udr- “water.” Note: Latin . lutra, gives rise to Spanish nutria.


The name ” panda ” originates with a Himalayan language, possibly Nepalese . And as used in the West it was originally applied to the red panda , to which the giant panda was thought to be related. Until its relation to the red panda was discovered in 1901 , the giant panda was known as Mottled Bear or Partli-coloured Bear .

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park notes:

“One of the few known candidates for the root of the word panda is pónya , possibly derived from a Nepali word referring to the ball of the foot–perhaps a keen observation of how this bear eats bamboo with an adapted wrist bone that functions as an opposable thumb and sixth digit. Other writers believe that “panda” came from wah , the Nepali name for the red panda ( Ailurus fulgens ), and originating from the childlike sound that this species sometimes makes. The ultimate answer, however, may remain as elusive as a wild giant panda in a forest of bamboo”.

In Chinese , the giant panda is called the “large bear cat” or “cat bear” Most bears’ eyes have round pupils. The exception is the giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits, like cats’ eyes. It is these unusual eyes that inspired the Chinese to call the panda the “giant bear cat”.


From the Malay word pengguling (peng- , instrumental pref. + guling , to roll over) for “curling” in reference to its defensive habit.


Ultimately from Sanskrit pundarikam “tiger,” probably lit. “the yellowish animal,” from pandarah “whitish-yellow.”


From Flemish. The old word coney was used until the 18th century to describe the animal. This comes from the Latin word cuniculus, which, itself comes from an Iberian term. Rabbits were virtually restricted to the Iberian Peninsula until Roman times.

When the Phoenicians first ventured westwards in search of trade some 2500 years ago, they came upon a land inhabited by tribes whom the Greeks would later call the Iberians (after the river Iberus – the Ebro). They also saw (and no doubt roasted) some strange floppy-eared animals which appeared in great numbers everywhere. So, according to the most popular theory, they called the land i-shepan-im , land or coast of rabbits, or to be more precise the land of hyrax, the animal they knew well from their North African homeland and confused with the rabbit. To the Romans, it became Hispania, and in the Middle Ages, Spain – the land of rabbits. When Strabo refers to rabbits in Spain he calls them “little or burrowing hares” as the Romans had no name for rabbit, until they adopted the Iberian term.

Turdetania* also has a great abundance of cattle of all kinds, and of game. But there are scarcely any destructive animals, except the burrowing hares, by some called “peelers”; for they damage both plants and seeds by eating the roots. This pest occurs throughout almost the whole of Iberia , and extends even as far as Massilia, and infests the islands as well. *roughly equivilent to Andalusia

Pliny also refers to rabbits in his Natural History

There are also numerous species of hares. Those in the Alps are white, and it is believed that, during the winter, they live upon snow for food; at all events, every year, as the snow melts, they acquire a reddish colour; it is, moreover, an animal which is capable of existing in the most severe climates. There is also a species of hare, in Spain, which is called the rabbit ( coney, ” cuniculus); it is extremely prolific, and produces famine in the Balearic islands, by destroying the harvests. The young ones, either when cut from out of the body of the mother, or taken from the breast, without having the entrails removed, are considered a most delicate food; they are then called laurices. It is a well-known fact, that the inhabitants of the Balearic islands begged of the late Emperor Augustus the aid of a number of soldiers, to prevent the too rapid increase of these animals.

Likewise references in the Bible in English and other languages to rabbit should have been translated as rock hyrax as rabbits were absent from the Middle East..

Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the cloven hoof; as the camel, and the hare, and the coney : for they chew the cud, but divide not the hoof; therefore they are unclean unto you” Leviticus, chapter 11 (Note neither rabbits nor hyraxes ruminate – they don’t chew the cud)

And elsewhere

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies” . Psalms, psalm 104
The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks” Proverbs, chapter 30 King James Bible

So the Bible’s coney is really the Rock hyrax Hyrax comes from Greek hurax , shrew mouse (hu rax). Also called, particularly in Southern Africa as a Dassie from Afrikaans from Dutch das for badger (see Dachshund above). Their small but stocky appearance led to further confusion when Storr in 1780 mistakenly linked their group to guinea pigs of the genus Cavia – and so gave their group’s name Procaviidae or “before the guinea pigs”. (which of course are not pigs, anyway)

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park notes on American jackass rabbits which are really hares:

“European settlers of the American Southwest likened the long ears of black-tailed jackrabbits ( Lepus californicus ) to donkeys’ ears, and so named the animals “jackass rabbits.” Mark Twain endorsed this moniker in his book Roughing It : “…We saw the first specimen of an animal known familiarly…as the ‘jackass rabbit.’ He is well named. He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass.” The common name was eventually shortened to “jackrabbit.”


Derived from the Algonquian word aroughcoune , “he who scratches with his hands.” In many languages, the raccoon is named for its characteristic dousing behavior. Waschbär in German , orsetto lavatore in Italian , tvättbjörn in Swedish , vaskebjørn in Norwegian , mýval in Czech , wasbeer in Dutch , pesukarhu in Finish , araiguma in Japanese , wanxiong in Chinese , all mean “washing bear.” In French the common raccoon is called raton laveur or “little washing rat”; the Linnean binomial is Procyon lotor or, roughly, “washing pre-dog.”. The Spanish term Mapache is from another indigineous language.


Probably Anglo-Fr. pol, from O.Fr. poule “fowl, hen,” so called because it preys on poultry.


from the Greek words rhino (nose) and keros (horn).


From Norwegian röyrkval “furrow whale”. This is in reference to the longitudinal folds of skin below and behind the mouth that are a distinctive feature of the species.


Skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, meaning “one who squirts” in Algonquian. Note: The musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: the name of the most common species, Mephitis mephitis , means “stench stench”, and Spilogale putorius means “stinking spotted weasel”.


From Anglo-Fr. esquirel and ultimately from Greek skia ” shadow ” and oura ” tail ” i.e. “tail that casts a shadow”).


From Greek tigris, itself borrowed from Iranian.


from Dutch : wal meaning “shore”, and r(e)us meaning “giant”)


The name comes from the four large warts found on the head of the warthog, which serve the purpose of defense when males fight.


From Dutch wild beest – “wild animal”. Although the name is derived from the Dutch, the name wildebeest doesn’t officially exist in the Dutch language. The Dutch name for wildebeest is gnoe (where the Dutch “g” is pronounced [x] ). ‘Gnu‘ is from a Khoikhoi language (which pronounced the [g]), which likely imitated it from the grunt-type noise that a wildebeest makes.


From volemouse , lit. “field-mouse,” with probably from O.N. völlr for field

Back here for more trivia, facts, figures, quotes abouts mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, plants, mountains, rivers…

Here for Iberianature : a guide to the natural history of Spain

Etymology of Aardvark

Etymology of Armadillo

Etymology of Badger

Etymology of Bear

Etymology of Beluga

Etymology of Caracal

Etymology of Caribou

Etymology of Cheetah

Etymology of Dolphin

Etymology of Dugong

Etymology of Duck billed platypus

Etymology of Fox

Etymology of Giraffe

Etymology of Hippopotamus

Etymology of Hyena

Etymology of Jaguar

Etymology of Leopard

Etymology of Kangaroo

Etymology of Mink

Etymology of Mole

Etymology of Mongoose

Etymology of Moose

Etymology of Mouse

Etymology of Narwhal

Etymology of Otter

Etymology of Panda

Etymology of Pangolin

Etymology of Panther

Etymology of Raccoon

Etymology of Rabbit

Etymology of Polecat

Etymology of Rhinoceros

Etymology of Skunk

Etymology of Squirrel

Etymology of Tiger

Etymology of Walrus

Etymology of Warthog

Etymology of Wildebeast

Etymology of Vole

Etymology of rorqual

Etymology of gorilla

Aardvark etymology

Armadillo etymology

Badger etymology

Bear etymology

Beluga etymology

Caracal etymology

Caribou etymology

Cheetah etymology

Dolphin etymology

Dugong etymology

Duck billed platypus etymology

Fox etymology

Giraffe etymology

Hippopotamus etymology

Hyena etymology

Jaguar etymology

Leopard etymology

Kangaroo etymology

Mink etymology

Mole etymology

Mongoose etymology

Moose etymology

Mouse etymology

Narwhal etymology

Otter etymology

Panda etymology

Pangolin etymology

rorqual Etymology

Gorilla Etymology

Derivation of Aardvark

Derivation of the word Armadillo

Derivation of the word Badger

Derivation of the word Bear

Derivation of the word Beluga

Derivation of the word Caracal

Derivation of the word Caribou

Derivation of the word Cheetah

Derivation of the word Dolphin

Derivation of the word Dugong

Derivation of the word Duck billed platypus

Derivation of the word Fox

Derivation of the word Giraffe

Derivation of the word Hippopotamus

Derivation of the word Hyena

Derivation of the word Jaguar

Derivation of the word Leopard

Derivation of the word Kangaroo

Derivation of the word Mink

Derivation of the word Mole

Derivation of the word Mongoose

Derivation of the word Moose

Derivation of the word Mouse

Derivation of the word Narwhal

Derivation of the word Otter

Derivation of the word Panda

Derivation of the word Pangolin

Derivation of the word Panther

Derivation of the word Raccoon

Derivation of the word Rabbit

Derivation of the word Polecat

Derivation of the word Rhinoceros

Derivation of the word Skunk

Derivation of the word Squirrel

Derivation of the word Tiger

Derivation of the word Walrus

Derivation of the word Warthog

Derivation of the word Wildebeast

Derivation of the word Vole

The word Aardvark comes from

The word Armadillo comes from

The word Badger comes from

The word Bear comes from

The word Beluga comes from

The word Caracal comes from

The word Caribou comes from

The word Cheetah comes from

The word Dolphin comes from

The word Dugong comes from

The word Duck billed platypus comes from

The word Fox comes from

The word Giraffe comes from

The word Hippopotamus comes from

The word Hyena comes from

The word Jaguar comes from

The word Leopard comes from

The word Kangaroo comes from

The word Mink comes from

The word Mole comes from

The word Mongoose comes from

The word Moose comes from

The word Mouse comes from

The word Narwhal comes from

The word Otter comes from

The word Panda comes from

The word Pangolin comes from

The word Panther comes from

The word Raccoon comes from

The word Rabbit comes from

The word Polecat comes from

The word Rhinoceros comes from

The word Skunk comes from

The word Squirrel comes from

The word Tiger comes from

The word Walrus comes from

The word Warthog comes from

The word Wildebeast comes from

The word Vole comes from

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