Jun 02

Animal Names and What They Mean

Behind each animal name, there is a story. Some names describe the animal fairly succinctly, such as the bee-eater bird, which eats bees. Others are named after the location in which they are found, or pay tribute to the naturalist that discovered them. And some animal names that appear basic and straightforward actually have a bit more depth to them. Below is just a small selection of animal names and how it is they came to acquire them…


A tarantula is an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. Even seeing a picture of these large, hairy spiders, or simply hearing the name, can trigger fear. But the word ‘tarantula’ was once used to describe a completely different type of spider – Lycosa tarantula, a wolf spider from southern Europe. The name comes from the Italian town of Taranto, where it was especially common. In ancient times, people believed that the bite of this wolf spider was venomous (note: it’s not) and that it brought on stupor, involuntary erections and an uncontrollable urge to dance off the venom in a vigorous and energetic dance called the tarantella.


Mexican Red-kneed Tarantula. Photo: George Chernilevsky

When Europeans started to explore more tropical parts of the world, they used the word ‘tarantula’ to describe an unrelated family of much larger and hairier spiders. These are the tarantulas that we would recognise today, and the original ‘tarantula’ (aka the wolf spider) has now largely lost that name.


The aardvark is only so well-known because it is found right at the start of the English dictionary (the aardwolf, a type of termite-loving hyena that missed out by just one letter, is much more obscure). James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, decided to have ‘aardvark’ placed within it, even though his assistant feared the word was ‘too technical’ to appear in a general dictionary.


Photo: Own work

The word ‘aardvark’ is Afrikaans for ‘earth pig’. Early European settlers to South Africa thought that the animal resembled a domesticated pig that liked to burrow into the ground. They are even said to taste a bit like pork.


The origins of the word ‘blackbird’ seem mundanely obvious: it’s a bird and it’s black. But why should the name be applied to this particular species and not to some other common black bird, such as the crow, raven or rook? Up until the eighteenth century, the term ‘bird’ was only really used for small or young birds, whereas larger ones such as crows were called ‘fowl’. At this time, the only widespread and conspicuous ‘black bird’ within the British Isles, in this sense at least, was the blackbird, hence its name.


Photo: Charlesjsharp

Right Whale

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were particularly hard times for whales. It was then that whaling was at its most popular and thousands of whales were killed each year. Right whales, smaller relatives of the blue whale, were so named because whalers deemed them the right whales to hunt. This was for a number of reasons. For one, they often swam close to the shore and were easily spotted. They were also slow swimmers, allowing boats to catch up to them. More importantly, though, they were likely to float once they had been killed, allowing their bodies to be retrieved more effectively.

Birds of Paradise

Some of the most beautiful and spectacular birds in the whole world live on the large island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. These are the famous birds of paradise, and the many different species come in a multitudes of shapes, sizes and colours.

The first feathers of these birds to be seen in Europe were brought back by Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition at the start of the sixteenth century, and they belonged to the greater bird of paradise. However, the expedition had collected the feathers not from New Guinea, but from one of the Spice Islands to the west called Tidore, where they were often imported to be used as currency. The New Guinean people who collected the birds usually cut off the wings and feet to expose the glory of the feathers, and so when Magellan’s men asked about these strange wingless and legless creatures, they were told by the Tidore traders, who had also never seen a living specimen, that they had never possessed wings in the first place.

‘The birds float in air – in paradise – feeding on dew,’ the Tidore traders claimed. ‘They don’t have legs, either, for they suspend themselves from the bare curling quills that project from their tails, and are only caught by humans when they die and fall to the ground.’

Soon, all of these suspicious details were printed as fact within natural history encyclopaedias. Since scientists didn’t know how these birds could lay eggs if they floated in mid-air all of the time, they simply filled in the gaps themselves; the females, they reasoned, must have laid her eggs on top of the male as he hovered and then she must have sat on them, and indeed him, to incubate them. When Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish zoologist who named and ordered a great many living things, heard tales about these birds, he gave the specimen of the greater bird of paradise obtained from Tidore the scientific name Paradisaea apoda, or ‘legless bird of paradise’.

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