The Inadvertent Origins Of 8 Misleading Animal Names

Turns out the world of animal names is…confusing.
October 22, 2020
The Inadvertent Origins Of 8 Misleading Animal Names

Animal names color the whole world when we’re young. Not only do creatures live in the environment around us, but they’re in children’s books, children’s movies and pretty much anywhere else children go. A child might not ever see an elephant in real life, but they’ll see dozens of fictional ones in their first decade on Earth. Maybe it’s because we learn our animal vocabulary so early in life that misleading animal names slip by unnoticed. But make no mistake: the animal kingdom is a linguistic mess.

To be fair, animals weren’t named sloppily on purpose. Humans have come a long way in our understanding of the natural world, and these misleading animal names often arise from honest mistakes. But once a common name for an animal sticks, it’s hard to get it unstuck. The least we can do, though, is see where these errors come from. 

How Animals Get Their Names

English animal names tend to trace back to the earliest encounters between English speakers and animals. The animals that our ancestors commonly saw tend to have the oldest names. Man’s best friend, the dog,” comes from the Old English docga. And the predecessor of dog, the “wolf,” goes back even further to Proto-Indo-European, which is the ancestor of a number of European languages.

Explorers played a large role in naming animals that aren’t indigenous to Europe. Sometimes this would happen when the explorers attempted to turn an indigenous word into an English one, such as in the case of kangaroo,” which likely comes from a similar word in the Australian indigenous language Guuguu Yimidhir. Other times, explorers and colonists threw caution to the wind and named animals after other, unrelated animals that they knew from their home country.

Eventually, scientists took over the business of naming animals, and the field of taxonomy developed. Rather than try to sort out the existing mess of names, taxonomists developed a different way to refer to animals, as well as all other life on Earth. And while there are countless attempts throughout history, the father of modern taxonomy is Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who formalized binomial nomenclature. In this system, all animals were given a two word Latin name consisting of their genus and their species. For humans, that was Homo sapiens.

The genius of binomial nomenclature is that it not only gives each creature its own individual name, but also shows how they fit into the larger tree of life. The two Latin words come from their larger classification, which you may remember from biology classes comprise seven parts: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. The more classifications that two organisms have in common, the more closely related they are.

8 Misleading Animal Names

While binomial nomenclature resolved a lot of issues for scientists, it didn’t fix any of the issues with common names. It’s unlikely any of these common names will change, either. So for now, we’ll just have to remember that misleading animal names exist pretty much everywhere.

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

A king cobra at the San Diego zoo
Dr.osh/Wikimedia Commons

Despite its name, the king cobra is not actually a king. And on a more serious note, it’s not a cobra either. A cobra is strictly defined as a snake that is capable of rearing upright and producing a “hood” on the side of its face (those scary wings that pop out of a snake’s neck). The cobras are also all a member of the genus Naja, whereas the king cobra is the sole member of Ophiophagus. The two are still closely related, but they differ in many ways including size, coloring and hood size, which makes them too different to be in the same genus.

This isn’t the only non-cobra cobra. There are tree cobras, American cobras, shield-nose cobras and more that don’t fit in the Naja genus. The reason for this is that the Latin word for “snake” is colubra, which later evolved into “cobra.” They have separate meanings now, but “cobra” and “snake” were probably interchangeable for a time.

American Buffalo (Bison bison)

A bison at Yellowstone National Park
Photo by Chloe Leis on Unsplash

If you look at the scientific name for the American animal sometimes called the “buffalo,” you can probably guess where this is going. The word buffalo,” if you trace it all the way back to its beginning, comes from the Greek word boubalos. The Greeks used it to refer to a specific species of African antelope. For some reason, the word was then later applied to a specific kind of ox that could be found in Asia and the Mediterranean. The word also started to morph, eventually becoming the Portuguese word bufalo. When colonists came to the Americas, they saw animals that looked kind of like those oxen and called them buffalo. Not the best system for naming animals, for sure.

This particular animal misnomer is one of the few that has been readily addressed. At one point, buffalo almost entirely beat out the more apt “bison,” but the tides have since changed. If you call them buffalo today, it’s now more likely than ever that someone will correct you.

Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

A turkey facing away from the camera
Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

The bison weren’t the only animals that colonists threw a random name at. This bird is native to the Americas, but its name comes from a country all the way on the other side of the world. The turkey is a prime example of just how bad humans are at naming animals.

The first turkeys were not the ones we know today. Instead, they were birds native to West Africa that today we call guineafowl, because they come from the country of Guinea. They were in fact exported from the region to Europe, but not without a quick stop through a major trading hub: Turkey. The birds became known as “turkey cocks” and later just “turkeys.” Then, when colonists went to Americas, they saw birds that looked vaguely like the guineafowl and started calling them turkeys, too. Even worse? People who lived in Turkey call Turkeys hindi, because they thought these birds were from India. Even the binomial nomenclature is a bit confusing, because gallopavo is Latin for “chicken-peacock.” Sorting this out is probably a lost cause at this point. 

Guinea Pig (Cavia porcellus)

A guinea pig leaping through the grass
Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

Sticking with the Guinea theme, the guinea pig is neither Guinean nor is it a pig, making it a double-whammy among misleading animal names. They come from South America and are a type of rodent, and no one is entirely sure where this name came from. It could be that the rodents passed through Guinea on their way to Europe or they departed South America from Guyana. It also might be that they cost one guinea in England, which was the name for a British coin that was worth one pound. As for the “pig” part, it could be either that they squeal like pigs — which they certainly do — or that they tasted a bit like pig when they were cooked.

The Latin name gives more nuance to this animal’s history. The word cavia is New Latin — meaning it didn’t exist in the time of the Romans — and it is taken from an indigenous South American word for guinea pig. The other part, porcellus, means “piglet.” 

Koala Bear (Phascolarctos cinereus)

A koala sitting in a tree
Photo by Ellicia on Unsplash

To be a bear, you have to be a member of the genus Ursus, which the koala is not. Koalas are marsupials, but they’ve earned the name “bear” because they do look a bit like a bear, albeit a small one. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to avoid this misleading animal name: call it a koala.

The word koala itself comes from the indigenous Australian language Dharuk. The original name — gula — is thought to have meant “no drink” in Dharuk because of the koala’s tendency to never come down from its tree to get water. It’s still a mystery today how koalas can stay hydrated despite seemingly never drinking anything, and wild koalas appear to never drink standing water. In that sense, the original Dharuk name would be a pretty accurate name.

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

A red panda sitting in a tree in winter
Photo by David Sanchez on Unsplash

This animal, which has gone by the names red panda, lesser panda, red bear-cat and red cat-bear, is none of those things. Well, it’s red, so we can give it that. But being native to the Himalayas that stretch through Asia, it’s not a huge surprise that people might think that these animals have a more-than-passing resemblance to the panda bear (which, unlike the koala, is indeed a bear). For a while, scientists weren’t sure exactly how to classify this creature, but they eventually determined that it belongs to its own standalone genus. It’s more closely related to raccoons and weasels than it is to bears, though.

A Whole Heap Of Birds

A red-bellied woodpecker sitting on a bough
Photo by Robert Woeger on Unsplash

There are possibly up to 18,000 species of bird out there, which is quite a few. Many of them make do with only a Latin name, but there are certainly a number of common names out there. These names come from any number of sources, making the whole practice of bird naming unreliable. And while some are helpful and descriptive, there are also many that can make an amateur bird-watcher tear their hair out.

There are too many bad bird names to get to every single one, but here are a few prime examples. There’s the red-bellied woodpecker, whose belly — as you can see on the photo above — is certainly not red. There’s the evening grosbeak, who oddly tends to disappear as soon as the sun starts to set. And then there’s the Connecticut warbler, which is going to be pretty hard to find in Connecticut because it nests nowhere near the northeastern United States. If you’ve decided to take up birding, you may want to take a lesson from the pros and start learning the Latin names.

Starfish

A starfish in an aquarium
Photo by Tijana Mihajlovic on Unsplash

There are hundreds of species of starfish out there, and the “star” part is certainly correct. The fish part? Not so much. We won’t even really dive deep into this one because you don’t have to look hard to see why this animal is simply not a fish. Why would it be a fish? It doesn’t have fins. Do fish need fins? Whales have fins but are mammals, which means they aren’t fish. Wait, what exactly is a fish?

Well, “fish” is where things get tricky. Trying to force a word that’s been casually used for thousands of years into a rigorous scientific system causes a lot of taxonomical problems. In the book Why Fish Don’t Exist, author Lulu Miller points out that the word “fish” is so broad as to be useless, and there are some “fish” that are more closely related to creatures on land than they are to other fish. Though fish certainly do exist — trying to argue to someone that a salmon is not a fish is rejecting the very concept of language as a tool for communication — this example shows just how tricky it can be to describe the world.

So many animals names come from early human history, before we had any understanding of evolution or taxonomy. Because of this, the English language is full of misleading animal names and it always will be. But it hasn’t stopped us from gaining a better understanding of the environment around us.

Learn a new language today.
Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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