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Words Inspired by Animals

Words Inspired by Animals

Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound. Animals, being the noisy creatures that they are, are a rich source of sounds. Dogs inspired the words yap and woof. Bees gave us buzz and birds are responsible for cuckoo. Animals are behind hundreds of other non-onomatopoeia words in the English language, too. Let’s go on a safari through the dictionary.


The clue—lion—is in the name. No, lions don’t eat this plant, although the leaves are edible. Instead, the shape of the green leaves reminded someone of a lion’s teeth. Thus, the French dent de lion, “tooth of the lion,” became the name of the pretty yellow weed everyone loves to pull from their lawns.


What’s your sign? In Western astrology, the year is divided into twelve periods associated with constellations. Most of the constellations are represented by an animal, such as the Taurus bull, Pisces fish, or Aries ram. Zodiac means “circle of little animals,” which is what you see when you look at the zodiac diagram.

Shih Tzu

The shih tzu dog breed probably originated in Tibet, but the dogs were a prized accessory of nobles in Imperial China. Only weighing between eight and sixteen pounds, the lapdog wasn’t much protection. But they looked so much like ancient lion statues that the nobility began calling them “lion child dog” in Mandarin.


Every fifty years, ancient Israelites let the fields lie fallow, freed Hebrew slaves, and returned hereditary lands to their original owners. A ram’s horn was used to announce the event. The word jubilee derives from the Hebrew name of that animal’s horn: yoh·vel’. It was a time of rejoicing, and so now jubilee can describe any occasion of festivity.


Wingtips, or brogues, are shoes with a distinctive pattern of perforations on the toe. Because the decorative holes are reminiscent of the shape of a bird wing, the shoes are called wingtips. In Ireland, where the shoes originated, the purpose of the design was to allow water to pass through as the wearers waded through boglands. Nowadays, fashionable people wear them on all types of terrain.


Do you have a sepia setting on your camera? Sepia tones make pictures look like they did in the days before the invention of color photography. Sepia gets its name from the cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are cephalopods that release a dark fluid as a defense mechanism. People made ink from the brown secretions. In time, the name of the genus, Sepia, became the name of various shades of grayish or greenish brown.


This Hebrew word comes from the Bible. The book of Job speaks of a large beast with limbs like wrought-iron rods. Using other clues from its description, such as the fact that it lived in rivers, some surmise that it’s an ancient name for the hippopotamus. Today, it describes anything huge, powerful, or heavy.


There’s something fishy about this red sauce! Back in the 1690s, a tangy sauce made from vinegar and tomatoes accompanied fish. Modern-day ketchup derives from Malay kĕchap (fish sauce,) from Cantonese kōetsiap (brine of pickled fish), and from Chinese kōe (seafood) + tsiap (sauce).


Burritos are a delightful Mexican dish usually made from meat, beans, or cheese rolled in a flour tortilla. A burro is a donkey. In Spanish, adding -ito to a word can indicate affection or small size. Literally, a burrito is a small or beloved donkey. No one knows for sure how this animal became the name of this yummy treat, but there are a few legends. One is that Juan Méndez, a street taco vendor, transported his food with a donkey. People began to associate his flour tortilla tacos with his beast of burden. Another folk tale is that a street vendor wrapped food in tortillas to sell to schoolchildren that he, perhaps affectionately, called his burritos, a colloquial term for dumb people. Later, burritos referred to the food rather than the children.


This adjective describes things that are snakelike. It often refers to winding roads or meandering rivers. Snake is also a term for a treacherous person. Thus, a serpentine personality is cunning and complex. The term also describes a dark green mineral that has spots and speckles, like a snake’s skin.


Is your appetite easily spoiled? Hopefully, thinking about what these noodles look like will not distract you from how they taste. Like Spanish, Italian has diminutive suffixes. To the Italians, this long, thin pasta resembles vermicelli, or “little worms.”


In falconry, trainers cover their birds’ heads with a leather hood to calm them. The hood also limits their range of vision, which is about ten times as good as that of humans. If they didn’t do this, the birds might constantly get excited about targets that the handlers can’t see. People started using the expression to mean blindfolding someone. Later, the term evolved to mean to trick or deceive.


A vaccine is a preventive measure taken to inoculate people against certain diseases, such as measles or smallpox. The word is from the Latin vaccina, “of or pertaining to a cow.” What do cows have to do with it? In the early 1800s, a British doctor developed a method for preventing smallpox by injecting people with cowpox. Cowpox is a mild disease contracted from interacting with infected cows. When exposed to cowpox, the body produces the same antibodies that fight the deadly smallpox virus. Have you thanked a cow lately?

We can thank hissing snakes, cute little donkeys, and a troupe of other animals for providing inspiration for such interesting vocabulary. Millions of animal species exist on Earth. Each year, thousands more are discovered. Clearly, there are a lot of animals still out there waiting to inspire a word or two! Is it time for a trip to the zoo?

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