Discovering the origin of mammal names is harder than trying to figure out bird names, maybe because there are more birds, or maybe more thought was put into naming birds? After some digging however, I came up with these ditties.
Originally, mammals were known to early scientists as Quadrupedia or four-legged animals, a term coined by Aristotle. However, in 1758, in his treatise Systema naturae, Carolus Linnaeus introduced the term Mammalia into zoological taxonomy, meaning simply ‘of the breast’. This defined all mammals including humans, apes, ungulates, bats and all other organisms with hair, three ear bones, a four-chambered heart that fed their young with milk. Now we simply know all of these as mammals.
Linnaeus chose words, such as Mammalia, based on his own ‘rules’ for zoological terms: they must be pleasing to the ear, easy to say and to remember, and not more than twelve letters long. The word ‘animal’ is derived from animalia, which itself came from anima, meaning ‘the breath of life or vital spirit’.
Many of the North American mammal names came from Algonquin words, since this Nation was the most widespread and populous on the continent.
The Algonquians called the opossum the apassum or ‘white beast’. This clearly is linked to its grayish coloured pelage, fur. The raccoon, an important fur-bearer, was known as arathcone or aroughcoune, ‘he who scratches with his hands’, aptly named if you’ve ever watched a raccoon searching for or eating food. Appropriately in French the raccoon is called raton laveur or ‘little washing rat’.
The moose is the largest member of the deer family, and its name originates from moos or moosu, meaning ‘he strips bark’, a popular winter feeding technique used by moose. The antlers of deer and moose are bony protuberances that change seasonally. But did you know the word ‘antler’ came from several sources, such as the German Augensprosse or ‘eye sprout’? The Latins called them ante ocularem ramun or ‘the branch before the eye’.
The French used the word antoillier which eventually morphed to become antler. The caribou was called khalibu meaning ‘scratcher or pawer’, again indicative of its feeding behaviour.
Our porcupine was once known colloquially as the porc d’espine or ‘spiny porker’, due to its many quills. The word ‘porcupine’ comes from the Middle French porc (pig) and espin (from Latin spina or thorn). The English changed the name to porkepyn and later porcupine.
Building on a recognizable morphological feature, our squirrels derived their names from the Greek skia oura or skiouros or ‘shadow tail’. This was recorded as esquirel by the Anglo-French and eventually squirrel as we know it.
The wily fox derives its name from the Old English fukhs for tail, our mink likely is named from the Swedish menk, while the mole comes from the Old English molde (soil) or mouldwarp (earth-thrower). The genesis of otter was harder to trace, but likely came from the word udrah or ‘water creature’, and assuredly ‘otter’ is the source for our English word water.
Rabbits are well-known to us and have their root in the Iberian region of Europe, where they were known as coneys from the Latin cuniculus. Young ones were known as laurices, but I couldn’t find a derivation for that word, so maybe it is just a colloquial term used to name this favoured delicacy. On our side of the pond, the jackrabbit was originally called the jackass rabbit due to its long floppy ears. The skunk is deemed to be a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, meaning ‘one who squirts’ in Algonquian. Scientists are well aware of their ability to spray and its scientific name appropriately Mephitis mephitis translates to ‘stench stench’.
Finally, our bats used to be known as flittermice or ‘fluttering mice’. In Middle English languages, bats were known as bakke, which itself likely derived from the Latin blatta, or ‘night moth’. That morphed into ‘bat’ as we know it today.
Word etymology is a fascinating study and clearly is boundless. Go out and see what you can add to what I found!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.