Words You Didn’t Know Were Inspired By Animals

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Fawning adulation

Dog-owners experience adulation when they come home from work (or vacation) and get smothered with doggy kisses. This word for “excessive devotion to someone” traces all the way back to the Proto-Indo European (PIE) language family. In PIE, ad ul literally means “to tail” but carries the sense of “to wag the tail” like an adoring dog. 

In the 1200s, fawning, a synonym for adulation, also conveyed the same “devoted dog, swishy tail” association. But, the animal inspiration with this one is a little more clear since a baby deer is also called a fawn.

Arctic

The word arctic comes from arktos, the Greek word for “bear.” But, giant polar bears roaming the arctic tundra aren’t the bears in reference; rather, it’s the beautiful constellation Ursa Major (“Great Bear”) in the night sky above.

Before arctic described the northernmost region of the globe, the adjective referred to the celestial regions above the sparkling night sky. Beautiful!

Sturdy

Today, we think of a sturdy bed frame as being “robust” and “strongly built.” Seven hundred years ago, a sturdy frame would have been “hard to manage” and “reckless” (it was going through its teenage angsty phase and hated people getting on its back all the time).

The word possibly derives from the Latin turdus, the dull brown and speckled songbirds we now call thrushes. One origin narrative explains that thrushes pecked fermented grapes left over from winemaking and would become drunk. In their loopy state, they’d behave “recklessly,” ransack the fridge, leave the door open all night, and pass out on the couch. The French expression soûl comme une grive, “as drunk as a thrush,” seems to corroborate this.

How sturdy ever got sober—that’s a story for another day.

Bawl

Have you ever thought that when a person bawls, it sounds like a barking dog? If so, you’re on to the Latin origins of this word. 

In Latin, baulare meant “to bark like a dog,” and when the word was first adopted into English, it was only used in reference to man’s best friend. But, because distressed human beings can sound so much like dogs when they gulp for air and woof sobs of sadness, bawl is now a verb used to describe crying. 

Berserk

The kid who grabs mom’s cake batter and runs screaming through the house—flinging it everywhere—has gone berserk. Wild, deranged, and even violent behavior is described by this adjective, but it once figuratively meant “raging warrior of superhuman strength.” (That’s what the kid thinks! Mom, of course, is of a different opinion).

From the Old Norse ber (“bear”) serkr (“shirt”), a berserker was a bearskin-clad warrior who felt endowed with superhuman powers after draping himself in the fur of the beast.

Burrito

Unless you speak Spanish, the last time you bit into a burrito, you probably didn’t realize the the word means “little donkey.”

But, don’t worry, donkey meat wasn’t originally rolled into the wrap; one legend has it that a Mexican taco vender traveled by donkey and wrapped tortillas around the food to keep it warm.

Schlong

Keeping it classy; schlong derives from the Yiddish shlang, meaning “snake” or “serpent.” Not too hard to see why the word became English slang (shlang?) for “penis” in the year—get this—1969. 

Butcher

A butcher makes a living slaughtering animals to sell for meat, all kinds of animals. But, the word butcher originally referred to only a single animal: the goat.

From the Old French bochier (boc meant “goat”), butcher literally meant “slaughterer of goats.” Not surprising to see animal inspiration behind this word, right?

Canopy

In some places, mosquitos are so bad a canopy of netting is installed around beds to keep the menaces from aggravating sleepers.

Similarly, Ancient Greeks built kanopeions, “couches with mosquito curtains,” to block the konops, “mosquitos.” By the time the word canopy was assimilated into English in the late 1300s, it referred only to the curtain and not the couch-and-curtain ensemble.

Cantaloupe

The name for this delicious peach-colored melon surprisingly relates to “singing wolves.” In Latin, cantare means “to sing” and lupus means “wolf.”

The first cantaloupes were grown in the Middle Ages, in a region of Italy outside Rome called Cantalupo. The region was named for the many wolves that could be heard “singing” in the night.

Capricious

A capricious person is unpredictable and acts on a whim. Italian goats (capros) are the original capricious creatures. They so adore frisking about and romping whimsically through the countryside that they inspired the Italian word capriccioso (“whimsical”), which gave rise to capricious in 1600.

Sniper

Back in the 1800s, it was popular to hunt snipes, or long-billed birds notorious for being jittery and flying at high speeds—making them one of the most difficult game birds to shoot.

Moving too close to them would really ruffle their feathers and ruin a good shot, so the only way a sniper (snipe hunter) could possibly hit the bird was from a distance, hidden out of sight.

Cynic

If a dog’s skeptical or distrustful of her owner, she wouldn’t be an adulator wagging her tail—she’d be a cynic.

From the Greek kynikos, meaning “dog-like”, cynic was first used in reference to a group of Ancient Greek followers of a philosopher named Antisthenes. Maybe the cynic philosophers were sneering and sarcastic in their debates, but the name likely comes from Kynosarge, “Gray Dog,” the name for the philosophers’ meeting place. The cynic as “sneering sarcastic person” came later, in the late 1500s.

Hackneyed

Fans of British dramas may know that hackneys were the Ubers of centuries past. The word originates from the Old French haquenée, or a docile horse suitable for the dainty and delicate dispositions of the fairer sex.

Hackney then came to describe any horse hired out for service (along with the coach or carriage it was attached to). Poor hackney horses suffered through the drudgery of hard and incessant labor, pounding the streets every day until they were used up. By extension, anything that’s hackneyed reflects that sense of wearied, worn-out toil. 

Tragedy

Replacing the word tragedy with its Ancient Greek meaning turns tragic comic: “It was such a goat song the way Romeo and Juliet both die at the end!” “Goat song”? Yes, that is indeed what tragoedia means (from tragos, “goat” and oide, “song”).

Numerous conjectures try to explain this peculiar meaning; some say the earliest tragic plays were performed by actors dressed in goatskins; others relate the meaning’s origins to the fact that the goat was the sacred animal of Dionysus (the god of theater) and tragedies were the first plays created in the god’s honor.

Tyke

 “Come here, you little tyke!” Cue a big bear hug (and maybe a loving noogie on the noggin) from an uncle or grandfather.

From the Old Norse word tik, meaning “female dog,” tyke became an insult at one time, meaning a “low-bred or lazy man.” It regained its childlike innocence at the beginning of the 20th century.

Dandelion

The hidden meaning isn’t so hidden in dandelion. Dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth,” was the original French name for the perky weed because the spiky leaves were thought to look like lion’s fangs.

Henchman

The English language reflects how horses are some of the most important animals in the history of transportation. In Old English (via Dutch and German), hengest meant “horse” or “stallion.” The hengestman (“horseman”) was a knight or servant who traveled alongside a nobleman on horseback. This means that, for about 500 years starting in the 1300s, henchmen were trusted attendants.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that the sense of henchman as “unscrupulous criminal” came about, probably due to a mistranslation of the original meaning.

Cavalier

From the Old Italian cavallo (“horse”), and cavalliere, (“mounted soldier or knight”), cavaliers were armed knights on horseback. Knights were supposed to be courageous and gentlemanly, so at first (centuries ago), the adjective cavalier meant “knightly, brave, gallant.”

But, over time, it seems the riders became too high and mighty on their horses, hence the modern-day adjective meaning “haughty or disdainful.”

Bellwether

Silicon Valley is a bellwether of the tech industry. Audrey Hepburn was the bellwether for the LBD (the “little black dress”).

A bellwether is a frontrunner or trendsetter in a professional or social context. Strangely, it’s also "an emasculated male sheep." In Medieval shepherding, the wether—Old English for “castrated ram”—led the flock and could be identified by the bell around its neck.

Hobby

Also related to the noble equine, a hobby in the 1400s was a “small, active horse,” perfect for pulling a cart. The name for the small horse easily lent itself to describe a tiny toy horse in the word hobbyhorse.

Hobbyhorses are fun but they don’t go anywhere, which is exactly the sense that hobby came to pick up next: a favorite pastime that “doesn’t go anywhere,” or that isn’t one’s main (and very serious) occupation. 

Pavilion

Ever been to a concert at a pavilion, or an outdoor structure that provides some shelter overhead while being open to the light, air, and nature around it?

From the Latin words for “butterfly” (papilionem, papilio), these structures began as “large, stately tents,” with durable fabric unfurled like butterfly wings above people’s heads.

Bucolic

Remove the bucolic scenes of quaint pastures and countrysides from the history of art, and you’ll be left with a gaping black hole of history and culture.

This word describes anything related to the romanticized, rustic life of a shepherd. Though instead of relating to sheep, bucolic comes from the Greek boukolos, meaning “cow herdsman.” Most artists painting bucolic scenes include at least a couple of happy bous (“cows”).

Pedigree

It’s hard not to associate pedigree with dogs. But surprisingly, pedigree related to cranes way before dogs.

The term comes from the Old French expression pied de gru, meaning “foot of a crane.” In old genealogy charts, ancestral “descent” (or your personal pedigree) was represented by a forked symbol that resembled a crane’s footprint.   

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