This week, let's appreciate a typically underappreciated order of critters, the ungulates.
The word ungulate first showed up in English in 1802 from the Latin word ungulatus, or hoofed. Soon after that, in 1839 the word ungulates began representing the entire order of hoofed mammals.
Recent advances in DNA testing have completely changed our understanding of which critters are & aren’t ungulates. The old-school ungulates have now been sliced, diced & moved around. Who knew in 1839 that a hippopotamus was more closely related to a whale than it was to a rhinoceros? Who ever guessed that whales belonged in the order named for hooved mammals?
There are 257 species of ungulates on the globe as I type. In the next three posts we’ll take a look at the etymologies of a few of them.
In the 1300s, the word rhinoceros appeared in English, taken from the Greek word rhinokeros, which meant nose-horned.
The word hippopotamus showed up in the 1560s. It came through Late Latin, but started with the Greeks, & meant river-horse. This spelling replaced the earlier Middle English word ypotame, which also means river-horse & also comes from Greek, but made its way through French before landing in England.
The word deer is an Old English word once spelled doer. It meant animal or beast. Heorot, the word the Old English used to refer to the modern critter we call a deer morphed in time to the word hart. It seems that the word deer won out over time because enough folks going hunting for any animals preferred finding deer to the other options (some which had nasty tusks). In time, the initially general term took on the more specific meaning.
An Algonquin language (most likely Narragansett or Abenaki) gave English the word moose in 1610 The word means he strips off, which refers to either the moose’s habit of using his palmate antlers to strip the bark off trees, or to the moose's use of the bark of trees to strip the "velvet" from the antlers.
Junior etymologists unite! What have you to say about all this ungulation?
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate,Etymonline, & the OED.
In the previous post, we took a look at the etymologies of frog, weasel, plover, caterpillar, narwhal, muskrat, & platypus. Now, onto more!
Aardvark came to English in 1833 from Afrikaans (a branch of Dutch). It’s a compound Dutch word meaning earth-pig (aard = earth & vark = pig).
And thanks to Christine Ahern for asking about raccoon, which came to our language from Algonquian in the 1600s, written raugroughcum in Captain John Smith’s journals. It translates to he scratches with the hands.
Another English word that came from Algonquian is moose, written by various “first inscribers” as muns, moos, mooz and moz. The story is that an earlier form was moosu, meaning he strips off. This referred to the animal’s habit of stripping bark from trees for its meals.
The word penguin first referred to the now-extinct great auk of Newfoundland. Apparently the birds we now call penguins share some characteristics with the great auk. Sir Francis Drake wrote this word into English in the 1570s. The one proposed source is pooh-poohed by most etymologists, but for the sake of interest, I’ll state it here. In Welsh, pen means head and gwyn means white, and the long-gone great auks of Newfoundland had a big white spot between their eyes.
The word slug came to English in 1704 to refer to a shell-less land snail. It was taken from the word sluggard, which referred to a slow-moving & useless person. Though the existence of slugs pre-dates the existence of sluggards (or humans for that matter), we anthrocentric humans labeled those lazy people a good 500 years before labeling the shell-less snail.
Toad came from who-knows-where about the time we started calling English English. It had several forms including tadie, tadige & toadie. Rest assured, hard-working etymologists are – as you read - digging through old manuscripts to solve this centuries-old mystery.
Like toad, barracuda remains a mystery. It arrived in English in 1607 probably through American Spanish from some Caribbean language, but nobody knows but the barracudas, & they’re not talking (it can’t be easy to enunciate through all those teeth).
If an Old English speaker were to have seen what we would today call a hamster, s/he would have correctly referred to it as a German rat. By the 1600s, though, the German word hamster showed up in English, eventually eclipsing the less attractive moniker. It is thought that the German word hamster may have come from a combining of the Russian word chomiak and the Lithuanian word staras. Though my sick and twisted sensibilities wish chomiak meant German and staras meant rat, my sensibilities are dead wrong. Both words mean hamster.
So, which of these do you find most interesting or unlikely?
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Dictionary.com, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.