Our pick of the most intriguing names we give to plants and wildlife

Animals and their names

Animal names are funny things. They are among the first words a child learns: dog, cat, frog, squirrel. For my nephew, growing up in leafy part of North London, these words have been learned through regular, real-life encounters. But his knowledge of nature goes far beyond this, stretching west to the Amazon rainforest, north to the Arctic circle and south to the African savannah. Thanks to books, games, songs and cartoons, animals (and their names) are a big part of our childhood.

An etymological journey

Despite our familiarity with them, how well do we really know these words? Where do animal and plant names originate and what do they actually mean? In this article we’ll embark on a brief, etymological journey through the natural world, in search of answers to these questions.

Some etymologies are straightforward borrowings from other languages; others are as elusive as the animals they refer to. They are often a bone of contention and sometimes there exists little explanation for them at all. Where the evidence is inconclusive, the mystery is readily satisfied by so-called ‘folk etymologies’: elaborate word stories, which are entertaining but generally unsubstantiated. This clip from The Arrival is a prime example of folk etymology at its unfounded finest!


We’ll kick things off with a plant. This common yellow and white flower, found all across Europe, has a delightful story to tell. ‘Daisy’ comes from the Old English ‘dæges ēage’, which simply means ‘day’s eye’. The reason for this is that its white petals open up during the day and close at night.


It would seem that, for the Greeks, the hippo was little more than a river horse. For the Greek word ‘ἱπποπόταμος’ consists of ἵππος, ‘horse’, and ποταμός, ‘river’. Knowing this, we can see the connection with another Greek word: hippodrome. A stadium for racing horses, not hippos!


It’s not an animal name, but there is a bird hidden within the word. ‘Pedigree’, the record of descent of an animal, is actually three words in one. It comes from the Anglo-Norman French ‘pé de grue’, which literally means ‘foot of a crane’. It refers to the forked lines on a genealogical diagram, used to trace an animal’s lineage.


This one comes from the Latin term ‘lemures’ or the Greek term ‘lamia’, both of which are believed to be borrowings from a non-Indo-European language. These words translate into English as ‘malevolent spirits’. I may be missing something, but they don’t look too evil to me!

Endemic Indri lemur in natural habitat. Madagascar. Pic by Dudarev Mikhail | Shutterstock.com
Endemic Indri lemur in natural habitat. Madagascar. Pic by Dudarev Mikhail | Shutterstock.com


The orangutan got a slightly better deal than the lemur. It originates from the Malay language: ‘orang’, ‘man’, and ‘utan’, ‘forest’. If you came across an orangutan for the first time and had to tell your friends what you’d seen, ‘man of the forest’ seems quite a fitting description.


Finally, what does this widespread, flowering shrub have in common with a Greek island? The rhododendron is not indigenous to the island of Rhodes, but the two are connected by name. ‘Rhodon’ is Greek for ‘rose’ and ‘dendron’ means ‘tree’. We can assume that the name alludes to the plant’s bright pink flowers and that Rhodes was the island of roses (or pomegranates…or possibly snakes). Like I said, etymologies are not always so straightforward!

Do you have an interesting flora or fauna word story? Share it with us on the Zoo Portraits Facebook page or leave a comment below.

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James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.


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