Thursday, October 30, 2014

Language of Confusion: Animalia

Has anyone wondered why animals are called the things they are? No? Just me then?

Whatever. Here’s etymology of some common animals.

Cat comes from the Old English catt (why the extra T, Old English?), and before that the Proto Germanic kattuz, and earlier the Late Latin cattus. We also have the word feline, which didn’t show up in English until the late seventeenth century (historical fiction writers take note!). That comes from the Late Latin felinus and classical Latin feles, which just means cat. Apparently people liked the word cattus more than feles, which is why we call them cats instead of fels. Oh, and the reason we call baby cats kittens is because of French. Kitten showed up in the late fourteenth century, most likely coming from the Old French chitoun, which means little cat : ).

Dog comes from the Old English docga, an uncommon word that meant a powerful breed of canine. It replaced the previous word for the animal, hund, which we still use as hound. So originally, all dogs were hounds, coming from the Proto Germanic hundas, and further back than that, possibly the same Proto Indo European origin word as canine, kwon. Interestingly enough, canine only meant the tooth at first, not meaning dog until the mid-nineteenth century. It comes from the classical Latin caninus, which means dog or of dogs. So yes, it seems like the tooth was named because it looked like a dog’s tooth, and although it was a word for dog in Latin, English didn’t pick it up until sometime after the American Civil War. And the word puppy originally just meant a small lap dog. It showed up in the late fifteenth century, probably coming from the Middle French poupee, toy (and the origin word for puppet).

Rabbit is an interesting one. When it first appeared in the late fourteenth century, it only meant a baby coney, which was the word for rabbit up until the eighteenth century comes from the Walloon (that’s southern Belgium) word robète. What’s up with that word “coney”? Well, it comes from the usual Latin origin, where it’s the word cunilicus. It fell out of use because it happened to be a homophone of a rather unfortunate word in British English (I’m not getting more specific than that, but let’s just say the word used to rhyme with honey, not phony). But have you ever wondered why Coney Island in New York is named that? Now you know.



  1. I had no idea that the word 'cat' was around so long prior to the word 'feline". Incredible!

  2. Huh! I really should make note of this, since I often write 19th century fiction. Canine = tooth, not dog until after Civil War.

  3. So, Coney Island is Rabbit Island? Am I reading that right?

    And yeah, I do wonder about where animal words come from. Well, not out loud. Or consciously. But it is interesting nonetheless.

  4. Cattus - wonder if there's a connection between that and cactus. Both have 'claws.'

  5. I know some of the Germanic sounding names for dog and cat are still in use in the Dutch language.

  6. No no no
    You have it all wrong.
    Animals have only ever had one name ever since that incident in the Garden.

    We call them Bob.

  7. In the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam and Gollum get into a big argument, Sam is cooking a pair of coneys. He might even have called them a brace of coneys.

  8. Fascinating info. Maybe you can do an animal series of etymology posts. :)


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