Where Do The Words For Our Pets Come From?

You probably hemmed and hawed, deliberated and debated, over what to name your pet.  And we have a whole slideshow dedicated to the history of some of the most popular pet names

But have you ever thought about why Fido is called a dog, or why Bubbles is called a fish? The origins of domesticated animal names are quite diverse, and some are surprising. 

To commemorate National Pet Day (which should be every day, as far as we're concerned), let’s look at how some of the most beloved animals we keep as pets got their names.

dog

How did man’s best friend come to be called dog?

While dog is such a common word, its origin, well, hounds us. Until around the 1500s, the word hound used to be the general, go-to word for dog in English. Fun fact: the word hound is actually related to canine.

However, scholars can't quite pinpoint where the word dog—found, though rarely, in Old English—came from. Probably not unlike why you can't figure out why your dog likes to roll around in smelly stuff.

So, we guess we'll let this sleeping dog lie.

cat

While cats may be more mysterious and reclusive than dogs in real life, when it comes to the origin of the word cat, it’s a bit easier to pin down.

The word cat is recorded in Old English, and hasn't changed much since. (Hey, why mess with a good thing?) The masculine form was catt, the feminine catte.

The word cat is probably related to the Late Latin cattus, source of some other cat words you may know, including the Spanish gato and French chat.

fish

Like dog and cat, fish is another old word found in the earliest records in the English language. In Old English, fish took the form fisc. Spelling-wise, that sc looks like a fish out of water, but it was actually pronounced just like sh today!

Now, we think this is pretty neat: the English word is actually distantly related to the Latin piscis, ultimate source of pescatarian, "a person whose diet is mostly vegetarian but includes fish and seafood." Don't worry: no one is eating Bubbles!

snake

A pet snake isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, we know. But we love all pets here! Maybe calling it a snek makes it a little cuddlier—and certainly less ominous than serpent.

Snake comes from the Old English snaca, which looks dangerously similar to snack, from a Middle English word meaning "to snap, bite." There could be something to those sn- sounds, though. Many words involving the mouth and nose (and snakes are very much mouth and nose) begin with sn-: snarl, snicker, sneer, snout, and many more. This phenomenon is called sound symbolism.

Speaking of creepy-crawlies, the word serpent stems from the Latin word serpēns, which means "to creep, crawl." Serpent is also related to the Greek word herpes, source of herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

hamster

The name for those cute, furry, little chipmunk-cheeked rodents known as hamsters hails from German. Hamster was borrowed directly from the German Hamster in the early 1600s.

We like to think of hamster as the hipsters of the rodent world. Just because we can. For the sheer fun of wordplay.

horse

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And that's pretty much true, etymologically speaking, too. Horse comes from the Old English hors. The word has many a cousin in Germanic languages, and could come from an ancient root meaning "to run." In which case—of course!

But, that Old English hors has no relation to hors d'oeuvre, French for "outside the main course."

pig

First, a little swine quiz: what’s the difference between a pig and a hog?

On the farm, a pig is a young domestic hog. Generally speaking, a pig weighs in at under 120 pounds, the hog tips the scales over.

Now, like the word dog, forms of the word pig and hog are found in Old English, but their ultimate origin is obscure. Etymologists think that final -g in dog, pig, and hog have a connection, though.

Why do we raise pigs but eat pork? Same goes for cow and beef. That's due to the influence of French (and its higher social status) in the Middle English. Via French, pork comes from the Latin porcus, "pig, hog."

hermit crab

There comes a time in most every family’s life when you bring home a hermit crab, which, frankly, is one of the most low-maintenance pets you can get.

The hermit crab date back to 1725–35. Hermit refers to the way the crab protects itself in castoff shells. In general contexts, a hermit is a recluse. In zoology, a hermit can refer to an animal with solitary habits. This is interesting: the word hermit ultimately derives from a Greek word meaning "living in a desert."

The word crab—like so many of the words we've seen here—is found in Old English and has many Germanic cognates, like the dutch krab.

rabbit

Let's end where we began: an everyday word for a pet whose origin is just unknown.

Not recorded until about 1375–1425, the word rabbit is slightly younger than the word dog. It was probably borrowed from an Old North French word. But from there? Better not fall down the etymological rabbit hole.

Bunny, as a pet name for a rabbit, dates back to the 1600s. It appears to be based on bun, "tail of a hare." And hare? That gets right back to Old English roots with kith and kin in Germanic languages. But, be sure not to confuse rabbits and hares!

Seems we don't have to hop too far to get such origins when it comes to our pets. There's something comforting, though, in how long-lasting these words have been?