[ tawr-tuhs ]
/ ˈtɔr təs /
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a turtle, especially a terrestrial turtle.
a very slow person or thing.
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Fill in the blank: I can’t figure out _____ gave me this gift.

Origin of tortoise

1350–1400; variant of earlier (15th-century) tortuse, tortose, tortuce,Middle English tortuca<Medieval Latin tortūca, for Late Latin tartarūcha (feminine adj.) of Tartarus (<Greek tartaroûcha), the tortoise being regarded as an infernal animal; Medieval Latin form influenced by Latin tortus crooked, twisted (see tort)
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What’s the difference between a tortoise and a turtle?

The words tortoise and turtle are sometimes used interchangeably, and turtle is the more general term. The word tortoise is sometimes used to distinguish a turtle as being a terrestrial (mostly land-dwelling) one, as opposed to an aquatic turtle (one that spends most of its time in water).

However, this doesn’t mean that a turtle is necessarily aquatic simply because it’s called a turtle. For example, the box turtle is primarily terrestrial (it can also be called the box tortoise).

Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles that belong to the order Testudines. Whether something is called a tortoise or a turtle often depends on its habitat and physical features.

Some aquatic turtles, like snapping turtles, have webbed feet, while others, like sea turtles, have flippers. In contrast, turtles that are called tortoises typically have stubby, round feet, and their shells are often more domed.

Here are a few quick questions to help you determine whether it’s more appropriate to call something a tortoise or a turtle.

Q: Does it spend a lot of time in the water and have webbed feet or flippers?
A: It’s probably called a turtle.

Q: Does it live mostly on land and have a domed shell and round feet?
A: There’s a good chance it’s called a tortoise, but this isn’t always the case.

Q: Is it a teenaged, mutant ninja?
A: It’s a turtle.

Still stumped? Ask a herpetologist.

Want to learn more? Read the full breakdown of the difference between tortoises and turtles.

Quiz yourself on tortoise vs. turtle!

Should tortoise or turtle be used in the following sentence?

The huge, land-dwelling _____ of the Galápagos Islands is known as being one of the longest living animals in the world.

How to use tortoise in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for tortoise

/ (ˈtɔːtəs) /

any herbivorous terrestrial chelonian reptile of the family Testudinidae, of most warm regions, having a heavy dome-shaped shell and clawed limbsRelated adjectives: chelonian, testudinal
water tortoise another name for terrapin
a slow-moving person
another word for testudo See also giant tortoise

Word Origin for tortoise

C15: probably from Old French tortue (influenced by Latin tortus twisted), from Medieval Latin tortūca, from Late Latin tartarūcha coming from Tartarus, from Greek tartaroukhos; referring to the belief that the tortoise originated in the underworld
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012