13 animal names and their meanings
Let’s take a look behind the meanings of some common animal names…
The bird’s name comes from a combination of the classical Latin avis, ‘bird’, and post-classical Latin struthio, strucio. The latter is derived from ancient Greek στρουθός (strouthos), which also means ‘sparrow’. The Greeks sometimes called the Ostrich στρουθοκάμηλος (strouthokamelos), literally ‘sparrow-camel’.
This lizard-like creature received its English name via classical Latin chamaeleon. The Latin name derives from the ancient Greek χαμαιλέων (chamaileon) , itself from χαμαί (chamai), ‘on the ground, dwarf’, and λέων (leon) ‘lion’.
Armadillo literally means ‘a small armed person’. The word is borrowed from Spanish; it is a combination of the adjective armado, ‘armed’ (which gives us the English word armada), and the diminutive suffix –illo.
It appears that the squirrel’s long tail inspired the Greeks to name this rodent σκίουρος (skiouros) literally translated as ‘shadow tail’. This became sciūrus in Latin, where a diminutive ending (-ellus), seems to have been added, which can be seen in its descendant Old French esquireul. The word was loaned to English from Anglo-Norman esquirel, Anglo-Norman being the form of French used in medieval Britain.
Another animal name of Greek origin, hyena, or hyaena, apparently refers to a feminine pig, going by the literal translation of the Greek term. English took the word from Latin hyæna, which took it from Greek ὕαινα (hyaina), meaning ‘female pig’.
The lemur received its name from Latin. In Roman mythology, the plural lemures was used to describe the spirits of the departed. Their name is a reference to their spectre-like face.
The etymology of the narwhal’s name is almost as mysterious as its appearance. The English word is probably borrowed from Danish narhval, so it is of Scandinavian origin, but beyond that, things become less clear. A Scandinavian word is already attested in the Middle Ages, as Old Icelandic náhvalr. One theory suggests that the first element of this is an alteration of a word for ‘needle’ (related to Old Icelandic nál, ‘needle’, referring to the animal’s straight tusk). It may also be possible that it comes from a word for ‘corpse’ (like Old Icelandic nár), with reference to the colour of the whale’s skin, but there are also other theories
English ferret is based came into English from Old French fuiret, furet. This is a diminutive form which ultimately goes back to Latin fur, which perhaps quite fittingly means ‘thief’.
The origin of the hippopotamus’s name is fairly straight forward. The Greeks called it ‘ἱπποπόταμος’ (‘hippopotamos’), from ἵππος, ‘horse’, and ποταμός, ‘river’, andhe name entered the English language via Latin.
The name of the octopus has been borrowed into English from Latin, which ultimately takes it from Greek ὀκτώπους (oktopous) The Greek word means ‘eight-footed’, or ‘eight-footed creature’ – a reference to the animal’s eight sucker-bearing arms or tentacles.
The Dutch in South Africa gave English the name for this African mammal. Aardvark is thus the combining form aarde, ‘earth’, and varken, ‘hog, pig’. The names earth hog and earth-pig for this animal exist in English as well, but are now considered rare.
The orangutan (or orangutang) is literally a ‘person of the forest’. The word is apparently a borrowing from Malay orang utan, from orang, ‘person’, and utan, ‘forest’.
Nothing is really known about the ultimate origin of elephant. The Greeks had a word ἐλέϕας (‘elephas’) meaning both ‘elephant’ and ‘ivory’, which was borrowed into Latin as elephans and elephantus, and from there into other European languages. However, the origin of the Greek word is unknown, and there has been much speculation.