To make it even more complicated, they gave each animal two names – a scientific or Latin name and a common name.
The scientific name is unique and the same all over the world, made up of a genus name followed by a species name. The common name can change from one region to another. Some species are named after people or places, but many are named after their physical traits or behavioural habits.
Orangutan, for instance, comes from the Malay word for ‘wild man’, while moose comes from the American-Indian Narragansett for ‘he strips’ referring to its habit of stripping bark from a tree.
Corgi is from the Welsh for ‘dwarf dog’, and beagle is from the Old French for ‘noisy person’ from its loud bark. Spaniel means ‘Spanish dog’, and dachshund is German for ‘badger dog’, being the right shape to burrow into badger setts.
Baboon comes from the old French for ‘grimace’, and platypus is Latin for ‘flat foot’. Caterpillar is a ‘hairy cat’ and crocodile is from the Greek kroke and drilos, ‘pebble worm’, from its habit of basking on shingle. Hippopotamus means ‘river horse’ and walrus is ‘whale horse’.
Most birds are named after the cry they make, such as whippoorwill, cuckoo, crow and heron with a few exceptions. Flamingo is so-called after its flaming pink colour and ostrich was originally called megas strouthos, meaning great sparrow (the understatement of the ancient world) and also strouthokamelos because of its long camel-like neck.
The dugong is from the Malay duyung meaning ‘lady of the sea’ or ‘mermaid’. Those sailors had been away at sea for too long and must have thought the portly and whiskery dugong resembled a pretty woman! Dugongs are also known as sea cows because of their grazing habits.
Lemur means ‘spirits of the dead’ from Latin lemures and refers to its nocturnal habits and large, reflective eyes. Squirrel is from Greek skia ‘shadow’ and oura ‘tail’ or in other words, ‘tail that casts a shadow’.
There is a common myth about how the kangaroo got its name. When European explorers first saw a kangaroo they asked a native Australian what they were called. The native didn’t understand the question and replied ‘kangaroo’ meaning “I don’t know” in the Aboriginal language. The explorers took this to be the animal’s name. Less interestingly, the word kangaroo is probably derived from the Guugu Yimidhirr word gangurru which means kangaroo.