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Since I like to spend lots of time in the woods with wild animals, I thought it might be interesting to look at the origins of some of the words we use for these animals.

Note: the * indicates that the Indo-European or prehistoric word has been reconstructed by historical linguists.


Pronghorn 2555

The English word “antelope” comes from the medieval Greek word “antholops.” In the middle ages, this did not describe the animal that we think of today, but instead it was applied to an outlandish but imaginary beast. This beast was believed to haunt the banks of the Euphrates River (in what is now Iraq). It was described as very savage, hard to catch, and having horns like saws that could cut down trees. The term was later used for a heraldic animal. The term “antelope” was not used to describe the swift-running, deer-like animal until 1607.

The origin of the medieval Greek word “antholops” seems to be from the Late Greek word “anthólops” which is of an unknown origin.



The English word for the animal “bear” comes from the Old English “bera” which in turn comes from the West Germanic *bero which comes from the Indo-European *bheros. The word “bear” is also related to the English word “brown” (the bear is sometimes a brown animal). It is also related to the English word “beaver.”



The Plains Indians were well-known buffalo hunters. There are many who like to point out that the animal they hunted should not be called buffalo but more correctly bison.

The English word “buffalo” probably comes from the Portuguese word “bufalo” which referred to the large ox-like animal of Asia and Africa. The Portuguese “bufalo” has its origins in the Late Latin “bufalus” which was borrowed from the Greek “boúbalos.” Interestingly, the Greek “boúbalos” referred to a type of African gazelle.

In the late 18th century, the term “buffalo” in North America came to be used for the bison hunted by American Indians. While this was regarded as “incorrect” by some people, it is commonly used today, particularly by American Indians.

The word “bison” is of Germanic origin, coming from the stem *wisand- or *wisund-. This stem became the Old English “wesand,” a word which did not survive. In the 19th century, “wisent” was borrowed from the German “wisent” and referred to an extinct species of European wild ox. The Latin word “bison” comes from a borrowing from the German. In the 17th century, English borrowed the Latin word and applied it to the North American buffalo.



In Old English, the word “dēor” meant “animal” in general, not a specific animal. The origin of this word appears to have been the Indo-European *dheusóm which meant “creature that breathes.” The English word “deer” begins to move from a general concept to a more specific one sometime in the 9th century. The Old English word for deer was “heorot” and during the Middle English period “deer” became more firmly established and by the 15th century it was no longer used to refer to animal in general, but to that specific animal.


The animal which symbolizes the United States is the eagle. The word “eagle” comes into English from the Old French “aigle” which in turn comes from the Latin “aquila.” The Latin “aquila” comes from the adjective “aquilus” which means “dark-colored.” This suggests that the bird’s name originally signified “dark-colored bird.”

The original English word for eagle was “erne” which still survives in some dialects of English.



The world “elk” emerges in English during the 15th century. A number of words referring to deer-like animals seem to come from the Indo-European base *ol- and *el-. This base is used in Germanic to produce “*olk-” and “elk-.” The Old Norse “elgr” and the Old English “eolh” come from these Germanic bases. While the English “elk” could be a survival of the Old English “eolh,” it seems more likely that the Old Norse “elgr” became “elk” in Middle English.


The English word “moose” comes from the Native American Algonquian languages. The Narragansett word “moosu” has a deep meaning of “he strips” in reference to the moose’s habit of stripping the bark from trees.


“Wolf” is a word with an ancient history. It comes from the Indo-European *wlqwos. In prehistoric German this became *wulfax which later became “wolf” in English.

The Indo-European *wlqwos became “lúkos” in Greek which is the basis for the English “lycanthropy.”

Originally posted to Cranky Grammarians on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 01:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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