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Zebra crossings: what zonkeys tell us about our love of hybrid words

Have you heard of the zonkey? It sounds like we made it up, but it’s actually a widely-recognized word. Zonkey, it turns out, is only one of several words for the semi-striped offspring of zebras and other equine mammals. For whatever reason, these creatures have inspired generations of would-be wordsmiths to name them—and rename them.

Interbreeding of horses and donkeys is ancient; the word mule (originally from Latin) is attested in Old English and remains the standard term today. Reports of interbreeding of zebras with donkeys and horses can be found from at least the 1830s, but it doesn’t initially seem to have spawned any new vocabulary; the following description suggests that early zebra hybrids were described simply as another type of mule:

Hybrids have been produced from the Horse and the Ass breeding with the Zebra or Quagga. Two mules that belong to the Zoological Society are the offspring of the Ass and the Zebra. The earl of Morton bred a female hybrid from a fine male Quagga and a Mare of nearly pure (seven-eighths) Arabian blood.

1838 Penny Cyclopædia XII. 314

Zebra crossings

The earliest distinct term for a zebra hybrid recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is zebroid, which was first used to refer to a horse-zebra mix in the last decade of the 19th century. At the time, some people had big dreams for zebra hybrids. The periodical Tablet (probably quoting noted zebra-breeding enthusiast Baron de Parana of Brazil) proclaimed that “the zebroid, or hybrid between the horse and the zebra, ‘will be the mule of the 20th century’” (1899 Tablet 25 Nov. 849/2). Around the same time another word had emerged: zebrule (a blend of zebra and mule). Nowadays, both terms are often used generically to refer to any type of zebra hybrid.

Of course, Baron de Parana’s dreams never came to fruition. Zebra-donkeys and zebra-horses have remained mere curiosities, whether deliberately bred by hobbyists, or, as in the case of last week’s Italian foal, resulting through mishap when a frisky zebra stallion finds love in an adjoining paddock. In spite of the relative rarity of the creatures themselves, the number of words for them has increased apace.

Ligers and tiglons and zonies—oh my!

By 1953, the term zonkey had arrived on the scene. Gene Holter of California displayed the offspring of a zebra stallion and a donkey jenny at the Bronx Zoo in New York under that name, saying “Zonkey is not exactly a scientific name and I’m no scientist… But I don’t know what else you would call it.” (1953 N.Y. Herald Tribune 2 Sept. 1/7). Less than two decades later, when the same type of hybrid was born at the Colchester Zoo in the UK in 1971, it received yet another portmanteau coinage, and was called a zedonk. With horses, things get even more complex: we have not only the obvious zorse, but also (depending on the breed), the zetland (from Shetland), the zony (from pony), and the list goes on. Most zebra hybrids have a zebra sire and a donkey or horse dam, but the reverse does occur occasionally. Proposed terms for the extremely rare cases in which the zebra is the dam include donkra, zebret (from jennet, a female donkey), and zehinny (from hinny, a mule with a donkey mother). There seems to be little consistency in how the various names are applied, and given the disproportion between the vast nomenclature and the tiny population, it is almost as if the terminology were being invented anew at every birth.

We could just call them all zebra mules, but the chance to use a hybrid word to describe a hybrid animal seems to be irresistible (as ligers and tiglons can attest). And the trend isn’t limited to the animal world. Over a century ago, the American horticulturalist Luther Burbank developed a plum-apricot hybrid and gave the fruit a hybrid name, the plumcot (attested in OED from 1903). By the late 1980s, Floyd Zaiger had developed a more complex hybrid of the two fruits, and introduced it under a new, proprietary name: the pluot. Since then, plumcot and pluot have been joined by aprium and apriplum, all describing slightly different plum-apricot hybrids. Zaiger’s company has even moved into triple-hybrid territory, with the peacotum, a proprietary peach-apricot-plum.

The age of the hybrid word?

The surge in hybrid words isn’t limited to biological hybrids. There is evidence to suggest that the proportion of new English words formed by blending existing words rose precipitously during the 20th century. The OED records more than 4 times as many blended words entering English in the 20th century (more than 300) as in the 19th (around 70) even though the 19th century accounted for twice as many words overall. This infusion of hybrids has brought us such words as dramedy, motel, affluenza, Bollywood, brainiac, frenemy, and cyborg.

Is there something in contemporary English that loves a portmanteau, or just something in contemporary English speakers that loves to coin them? I tend to think that the latter is closer to the truth: for every blend like brunch that becomes fully integrated into our lexicon, there are many others (cremains (cremated remains), for instance) that remain too self-conscious and awkward to develop genuine currency. In any case, while the number of blended words for zebra hybrids may continue to grow, the population of zonkeys itself is unlikely to follow suit. Like most mules, they are sterile.

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