It’s Greek to Me: The Interesting Origins of Animal Names
Believe it or not, since toddlerhood you, your children, and just about everyone you know, have been speaking Greek.
Not fluently, of course; it’s not exactly the most common second language among the infant population, after all. But any child who’s gleefully turned through a picture book and pointed out favorite animals has the Greeks to thank; their (often quite literal) descriptions of the strange and fantastical creatures living in the countries to the south stuck, and we’re still using many of them today.
Quick: what do you think when you hear “river horse?” The moment in Oregon Trail when you’re forced to ford the river? A seahorse that got seriously lost?
If you were an Ancient Greek, you’d imagine a hippopotamus. Herodotus is generally credited with naming this strange creature, which he had observed in Egypt; híppos potámios, or “river horse,” was the only way he could think to describe it.
Here’s one you might be able to guess: which safari must-see would Greeks think of as ol’ nose-horn? If you guessed the rhinoceros, you’d be right; its name comes from rhino (as in rhinoplasty) and keras, the same root-word for the SUBSTANCE of rhino-horns: keratin.
Alright, what’s the littlest lion you’ll find in Tanzania? Here’s a hint: it’s not a cub…or even a mammal. It’s a chameleon; apparently the Greeks thought this color-changing reptile appeared a little like a dwarfish (chamai can mean low to the ground or dwarf) leon, or lion (who we can also thank the Greeks for naming!). We can see it…if we squint.
One we can’t see? The lady pig. For reasons long lost to history, that’s what the Greeks dubbed the hyena (hýaina, to them), whose pig-like appearance (hŷs is the Greek for swine) was softened somewhat with a feminine suffix, –aina.
And one even the Greeks couldn’t quite figure out? The leopard. Was he more leon, or more pardus (panther)? Eh, let’s cover all the bases just in case.
Of course the Greeks aren’t the only ones who got in on the wildlife-naming fun. We can thank early Dutch settlers in South Africa for “aardvark,” which literally translates to “earth pig” (aarde + varken). They’re also the reason we refer to the migration of the wildebeests (and what wild and crazy beests they are).
The Romans likewise gave us quite a few animal appellations: porcupines were seen as pigs (porcus) with spines (spinae). And with flamingos, the only thing you CAN see—their flamma, or flame-like coloring—earned them their title (at the time the bird was named, the Romans had spread throughout Europe, and they paired the latinate root, flamma, with an ending from one of the many lands where they then held dominion; in this case, the Germanic ing).
Their names may seem obvious to us today, but one thing’s certain: our forebears didn’t really know what they were seeing roaming the African plains.
One thing they did know, though? When in doubt, call it a something-pig.