Animal Names from Animal Names
13 Jun 2005
Not long ago at work I was part of a team working on an educational cartoon about sea creatures. The term 鲸鱼 was used in the script. Someone pointed out that the correct term for the mammal is actually 鲸, since a whale is, in fact, not a fish at all (the 鱼 character in means “fish”). I found this quite interesting. In English we don’t need to worry about the actual name of a whale; its name doesn’t carry that information. Still, you hear some of the same kind of nomenclature lecturing from the zoologist crowd when people say “panda bear” or “koala bear.”
I think probably every language has funny words for animals that are based on other animals. In English we have guinea pig, groundhog, hedgehog, prairie dog, jellyfish, and sea lion. I don’t think those are going to change. The ones targeted for “revision” seem to be the ones that are actually potentially misleading due to great similarity.
If you’re a foreigner just learning the Chinese language, however, there are a lot of animal names that could be misleading. Some of the ones that come to mind:
– 鳄鱼 (lit. “alligator fish”) — alligator or crocodile
– 熊猫 (lit. “bear cat”) — panda
– 龙猫 (lit. “dragon cat”) — chinchilla
– 河马 (lit. “river horse”) — hippopotamus
– 长颈鹿 (lit. “long neck deer”) — giraffe (hey, some deer do have long necks!)
– 荷兰猪 (lit. “Dutch pig”) — guinea pig
– 海豚/海猪 (lit. “sea pig”) — dolphin
– 豪猪/箭猪 (lit. “badass/arrow pig”) — porcupine
– 壁虎 (lit. “wall tiger”) — gecko
– 田鸡 (lit. “field chicken”) — (edible) frog
I’m sure there are more, but I’m not a Chinese animal name encyclopedia.
Maybe I’ve left out a lot, but it seems to me that Chinese does a lot more “borrowing” of animal names to create new animal names than English does. Could it be related to Chinese characters? (A large number of animals have their own characters, but at some point that practice becomes impractical.) It seems that a much greater proportion of animal names in English are loanwords.
I’m not really trying to prove anything here… Just throwing out a few thoughts. Also, I think it’s names like the Chinese examples above that make learning a new language interesting, so it’s a fun thing to share.