Some years ago I heard the story of how a certain animal got its name. It seems Captain Cook had landed at Botany Bay and, with a series of gestures and mimes, was attempting communication with the aboriginal population. When a well known animal bounded along in the distance he pointed and politely enquired in English "What is that?" He heard the reply as "kangaroo" and the marsupial had a name. What Cook did not know, and completely misunderstood, was the reply kan-ga-roo in the native tongue actually told him "I don't know!"
Such a story is highly unlikely to be true, nor does it have any etymological significance. However it did make me wonder where the names of other animals came from. Meander around most zoos and the most popular animals tend to be the largest and thus those never found in the British Isles.
The first stop was at the giraffe house, an animal initially called the camelopard by Europeans for it was said to be a cross between a camel and a leopard. Such a suggestion is a most unlikely and logistically improbable mating, even if the science of genetics was still far in the future, the real cross was solely etymological from camel for its long neck and pard for the spots. First seen as giraffa in Italian, this can be traced back to Arabic zarafa, in turn surely from an African language but one which today is unknown.
Staying on the African continent we find the lion, a word which has certainly been affected in terms of pronunciation by European languages but which was probably known better as a personal name meaning 'one who is fierce or brave'. It must have been used in Africa well before Europe, however the vast number of languages coupled with the small number of speakers and lack of written examples for each makes tracing the name impossible. The earliest we find is Hebrew labi and Egyptian labai for 'lion' and 'lioness' respectively.
The bison, so often erroneously referred to as a buffalo in North America, the word is Latin meaning 'wild ox'. This animal's name can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic wisand which described the 'aurochs', the huge ancestor of domestic cattle weighing over a ton and standing up to seven feet high at the shoulder. The last known specimen died in 1627 in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland.
Probably the most popular of the African animals is the elephant, the modern word from Latin elephantus, itself from Greek elephas which describes both the animal and its ivory. Further back we find Phoenician elu and Sanskrit ibhah. Despite the different species there is no reason to believe the African and Asian elephants have different etymologies.
Coming to the crocodile we at last find a name where we can trace the origins back to an actual meaning. The modern term can be traced back to the Greek krokodilos, a word first seen in the writings of Herodotus referring to the Nile crocodile and named for its habit of basking. The name uites the Greek words kroke or 'pebbles' and drilos meaning 'worm'.
Its reptilian cousin the alligator is much more recent, indeed not named as such until the Spanish arrived in the New World in the early seventeenth century. The name is a corruption of el lagarto describing 'the lizard' (of the Indies) and which can be traced back to Latin lacertus again 'lizard'.
No surprise to find rhinocerous is from the Greek rhinokeros and a name which suits the animal perfectly. Here we find rhinos meaning 'nose' combining with keras or 'horn', the etymology of both words are unknown but it is safe to say these words would have been among the first words used. Interestingly the shortened form of 'rhino' is not recorded until 1884.
The best known etymology of an animal name must surely be that of the hippopotamus. As with the rhino the name is Greek where hippopotamus comes from the earlier ho hippos ho potamios, literally 'the horse of the river'. The name comes from its position in the water with just the top of its head showing when, so it was said, it resembled the features of a horse. As with the rhino the shortened form is not seen in writing until quite late, first known in 1872.
Another African animal where the shortened form is first seen quite late is the chimp, appearing for the first time in 1877. Man's closest relative is named the chimpanzee from the Bantu language of Angola. Known as Tshiluba, it speaks of kivili-chimpenze and means simply 'ape'.
The largest ape is the gorilla A name first seen in the Greek gorillai, itself the plural of a name given to a large wild hairy people said to have inabited the regions of the northwest coast of Africa by the Carthiginian navigator Hanno around 500BC. As with many African animals the origin must ultimately be in one of the many native languages spoken on this huge continent.
Probably one of the loudest and most active of the animals in any zoo is the gibbon. This ape must have been known by an earlier native African name, however the earliest surviving reference is from 1770, when brought to Europe by Marquis Joseph-Francois Dupleix, former governor-general in India. This is from the Old French surname Giboin, itself from geba-win meaning 'gift-friend'. Just why it was applied to the gibbon and what its earlier name was are lost.
The stripes of the zebra are more of a mystery than the origin of its name. This is a Portuguese word describing an extinct wild ass, itself known as equiferus to the Romans and coming from two Latin words equus 'horse' and ferus 'fierce'.
An animal with two names is the wildebeest or gnu. The former is Afrikaans for, not surprisingly, 'wild beasts' and is a translation of the Dutch gnoe. This went on to become gnu and is derived from the click language where !nu again meant 'wild beasts'.
Earlier we saw how the leopard was said to have been one half of a cross which resulted in the giraffe. Yet the leopard was first considered to be a cross between the lioness and the male panther, which is where the name originates in Greek leopardos. Clearly there is also a connection to the Sanskrit prdakuh 'panther'.
The other supposed half of the giraffe, the camel, is from Old French camel, Latin camelus, Greek kamelos, Phoenician gamal, and probably ultimately from Arabic jamala 'to bear'. Note the similarity with the earliest names for the elephant, both of which would have been known for their ability to be domesticated as beasts of burden and named for such.
The name of the hyena can be traced through Old French hiene to Greek hyaina which was also used for 'swine' and thus used to describe the creature as 'greedy'. The use of the word jackal to describe someone is not complimentary, it was born of the belief that this member of the dog family would stirred up prey animals for attack by lions. For the name of the animal it can be traced through Turkish cakal, Persian shaghal, and Sanskrit srgala all of which described 'the howler'.
The bear enclosure is always popular. Of course there are several kinds, the polar bear speaks for itself, the black bear and brown bear refer to their respective colours. Yet even the name bear comes from Proto-Germanic beron 'the brown one', and earlier still seen in Proto-Indo-European bher 'brown'. The grizzly is also a colour, in medieval England this referred to 'grey'. Note in many northern lands it was considered unlucky for hunters ever to refer to to their quarry by name, hence the Russian medved 'honey-eater', also seen in the Welsh name, the Irish 'good calf', Lithuanian 'the licker'.