Thursday, January 15, 2015

Language of Confusion: Animalia III

This again! This time we’re doing large wild animals (except bear, which I did a long time ago).

Deer comes from the Old English deor, which meant animal or beast. Further back, it’s the Proto Germanic deuzam (again, it just means animal) and earlier, the Proto Indo European dheusom, a creature that breathes. Seriously. The word dheu means cloud or breath. It’s actually not that different from the word animal, which comes from the Latin
anima, breath or spirit. The only difference is that deer went from referring to animals in general to one specific type.

The word moose first showed up in the early seventeenth century, and unlike most words in the English language, it’s not of European extraction. Moose is a Native American word, definitely Algonquian, and taken from either the Narragansett moos or the Abenaki moz. Can you believe it? A purely American word!

Wolf comes from the Old English wulf, and before that, the Proto Germanic wulfaz and Proto Indo European wlkwo. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, but it means wolf, meaning the word was attached to the animal sometime at the beginning of known languages. I guess when something’s trying to kill you, it’s best to have a specific, universal word for it.

Boy, there are a lot of words for big cats. Lynx is the oldest cat words, showing up in the mid fourteenth century. It comes from the classical Latin lynx (yes, it means lynx), which was taken from the Greek lyngz. Cougar is fairly recent, coming from the French (as in, modern French) couguar, which just means cougar, and probably brought over to Europe from Brazil. Bobcat, which is another word for lynx, showed up in 1873 (pretty recent, huh?), and it’s just a mix of bob (for the short tail) and cat. Ocelot showed up in the late eighteenth century, another word coming from French, in this case ocelot, which shockingly enough means ocelot. It’s believed to come from the Aztec word ocelotl, which means jaguar, a word of Portuguese origin. Puma is also a late eighteenth century word, coming from the Spanish puma (do you even have to ask?), taken from the Peruvian…puma. Basically, except for lynx, all big cat words are of American origin, and they really haven’t changed much.


Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Yeah, some words we can call our own!
    A moose once bit my sister.
    Moose bites can be very painful...

  2. Alex has been watching Monty Python!

    I remember once photographing a mother moose and a calf, shooting a whole roll of film, only to realize when I got home that the camera was empty. No film!

  3. How interesting… The only one of those animals we have here are deer.

  4. Huh, so anything that breathed was a deer, huh? Unless it was a wolf. Important to be able to warn everyone that a wolf was coming and not just deer!

  5. Somehow, "cougar" coming from the French doesn't surprise me.

    Yeah, that's the best I could do, today, and you can take that however you want to.

  6. A creature that breathes. I like that. Of course, if the critter isn't seen anyplace but the Americas, of course the name for the critter would come from the Americas. That makes sense.

  7. How interesting to see words from the Americas this time.


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