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, April 30, 2015



Last week we took a look at rodents. Next, we’ll consider another underappreciated order of critters, the ungulates.

The word ungulate first showed up in English in 1802 from the Latin word ungulatus, or hoofed. Soon after that, in 1839 the word ungulates began representing the entire order of hoofed mammals.

Recent advances in DNA testing have completely changed our understanding of which critters are & aren’t ungulates. The old-school ungulates have now been sliced, diced & moved around. Who knew in 1839 that a hippopotamus was more closely related to a whale than it was to a rhinoceros? Who ever guessed that whales belonged in the order named for hooved mammals?

There are 257 species of ungulates on the globe as I type. In the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the etymologies of a few of them.

In the 1300s, the word rhinoceros appeared in English, taken from the Greek word rhinokeros, which meant nose-horned.

The word hippopotamus showed up in the 1560s. It came through Late Latin, but started with the Greeks, & meant river-horse. This spelling replaced the earlier Middle English word ypotame, which also means river-horse & also comes from Greek, but made its way through French before landing in England.

The word deer is an Old English word once spelled doer. It meant animal or beast. Heorot, the word the Old English used to refer to the modern critter we call a deer morphed in time to the word hart. It seems that the word deer won out over time because enough folks going hunting for any animals preferred finding deer to the other options (some which had nasty tusks). In time, the initially general term took on the more specific meaning.

An Algonquin language (most likely Narragansett or Abenaki) gave English the word moose in 1610 The word means he strips off, which refers to either the moose’s habit of using his palmate antlers to strip the bark off trees, or to the moose's use of the bark of trees to strip the "velvet" from the antlers.

Ungulate junior etymologists unite! What have you to say about all this ungulation?

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


  1. My goodness, Mr. Monger! You always have fascinating things to say, but I'm amazed to find that whales have hooves. Scientifically speaking anyway. Who knew?? And I was never quite clear on the difference between a hart and a deer and now I know. Thanks for this and all the other enlightenments!

  2. Hi Anne - I'm pleased to hear I'm not alone in my fascination.

  3. I'm trying to match up ungulation with undulation in a lyric, but failing miserably, so bah-humbug, I'll just undulate into bed and hit the hay.

  4. I'm certain most ungulates support your interest in hay. Ha!

  5. I didn't know there were animals known as ungulates. I guess I should have known that! I like that there was a choice for deer between deer and hart. Of course my romantic brain went right to dear heart and thought, what a coincidence? Ha!

  6. My, Christine, I had no idea you had a thing for ungulates!