Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Critter etymologies

Critter etymologies

Many etymologies of animals' names are pretty straightforward. Fish, for instance, comes from a source that meant fish. The original word for fly meant to fly. Ho hum. Some names for critters, though, are a tad more interesting.

Plover made its way to English around 1300 from Vulgar Latin through French. Its original meaning was belonging to rain. Apparently the plover made its migratory way through the British Isles just as the rainy season began.

Frog comes from fruska, a Proto-Germanic word meaning hop, and has been with us since we started calling the language English.

Another word that came to English as Old English was born is weasel. It came from the Proto-Germanic word, wisulon, & means stinking animal. Interestingly, wisulon is also the grandmother word to another slightly larger animal with a distinctive smell, the bison.

In the mid-1400s, caterpillar came to English from the French word chatepelose, meaning shaggy cat. Apparently, many languages named the caterpillar after other animals: American English - wooly bear, Portuguese – lizard, Italian – both little cat & little dog.

Narwhal came to English in the 1650s through Danish & Norwegian from the Old Norse word nahvalr. The pale hide of this animal inspired the Old Norse to call it the corpse-whale (na- meaning corpse & hvalr meaning whale).

Muskrat made it into English in the 1610s from the Algonquian word muscascus, which meant it is red.

The very unlikely animal the platypus got its name, not from any number of unexplainable physical characteristics, but from its flat feet. Platy is Greek for flat & pus is Greek for foot. Platypus came to English in 1799.

Shark arrived in English in the 1560s. Its origin is a complete mystery.

Good readers, I’m hoping you’ll suggest a critter or two in the comments section. I’m hoping to do a second critter etymology post.

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.


  1. Fascinating stuff as always, Mr. Monger. I like to hear about native American words, like muskrat. I didn't know that was a uniquely American animal.

    And how amazing that "shark" has no known origin. As mysterious as the fact such a prehistoric animal has survived into our era.

  2. HI Anne,
    May you be free of muskrats, sharks & sickness. Thanks for coming by.

  3. Raccoon. I wonder what the etymology of raccoon might be. I love that plover means "belonging to the rain". Our plovers sure are getting some rain to belong to these fine days Yay!!

  4. Aardvark. Don't know why I suggested this one, Charlie, but it's always been a funny name to me. Hope you'll put this one on your list. Fun post for sure. Hugs, P.

  5. Hey Christine & Paul,
    Thanks for the suggestions. I'll put them on my list.

  6. So, when they make you frog hop in the army, they're being redundant? Damn army can't get anything rite. Alllzzzooo, that shark. Why doesn't someone go and ask a shark?

  7. Hey Steve,
    As to the shark, the reference I found noted that when Captain John Hawkins & his crew returned to England in 1569 with the critter in question in tow, some of the crew members referred to it as a shark, but nobody thought to ask them where they came up with the moniker & nobody has figured it out since. Life's funny.