Animal Names from Animal Names

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 , 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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. For ref, Hippopotamus is from the greek for river horse, exactly they same really. Love the arrow pig though.

  2. what about ‘whale shark’?

  3. Woof,

    I had a feeling that was the case. The etymology isn’t totally transparent to speakers of English, though, so it’s different from the Chinese version in that respect.

  4. Luo Dawei Says: June 13, 2005 at 11:53 pm


    虎鲸 (tiger whale) = killer whale.

  5. When you’re a foreigner and you’re first learning the language, animal body parts can be useful too when you are eating out. 🙁

    As you just demonstrated, there are many kinds of fish and those fish have many different parts to their anatomies as do all other animals.

    Oh I so remember the times of looking at a menu to see 牛 and thinking, oh, okay, that’s beef….cows have many PARTS.

    see where I’m going?

  6. some interesting names
    琢木鸟 (pecking wood bird) hickwall
    企鹅 (looking goose) penguin
    恐龙 (horrible dragon) dinosaur
    乌贼 (black thief) cuttlefish
    水母 (water mother) acaleph

  7. Great words. 企 is probably better as “to stand on tiptoes,” though.

  8. 四脚蛇 (lit. “four legged snake”) = 壁虎 (lit. “wall tiger”) = as John said, gecko (lizard)

    Don’t know why but 八哥 (lit. “eighth brother”) = a talking bird or mynah

    Now on to 牛 (cows?)

    蜗牛 (lit. “spiral/worm cow”) – snail, watch for it in a restaurant menu

    犀牛 (lit. “sharp/horned cow”) – rhino

    In some dialects 屎巴牛(lit. “fecal dung cow”) = 屎壳郎 (lit. “shit clown” I guess, or “shelled-guy of faeces”) = dung beetle

  9. In Dutch a whale is a fish as well (‘walvis’; ‘walvis’=’fish’/’鱼’)

    I always did think us Flemings were much closer to the Chinese mentality than US Americans;-)

  10. Oops.


  11. Some of my favorites that aren’t included are:

    maotouying = 猫头鹰 = “cat-headed eagle” = owl
    wuweixiong = 无尾熊 = “tail-less bear” = koala
    haibao = 海豹 = “sea leopard” = seal
    daishu = 袋鼠 = “pocket rat” = kangaroo

  12. Another one I like: 猫头鹰 (cat-head bird) – owl

  13. schtickyrice Says: June 14, 2005 at 9:05 am

    Re:豪猪/箭猪, are those Shanghainese terms for porcupine? I believe 刺猥 is the proper term.

  14. df, you beat me to it! Owl in Chinese is my all-time favorite. I used to walk around saying it, but I got a lot of funny looks.

  15. schtickyrice Says: June 14, 2005 at 9:12 am

    one more bovine compound ‘word’:
    毛牛= hairy cow=yak

  16. schtickyrice,

    刺猥 is hedgehog.

    [ porcupine | hedgehog ]

  17. Gin, 屎巴牛,haha,i never heard of it. so funny.

  18. by the way, why 中文 blog has stoped for a long time

  19. Also, sometimes manatees in English are referred to as “sea cows”. Guess what the Chinese for manatee is?

  20. What about “monkey donkey?” I’ve only seen one in an arcade in 1984, though.

  21. schtickyrice, I thought the same thing when I first heard the word, but in fact yak is 牦牛. (Hey it’s just not your day, is it).

    Does anyone actually use 鲸 for whale? Or how about other conceivable alternatives, such as 鲸子 or 海鲸 (I only say these are conceivable, I’ve never actually encountered them). Anyway, there is a fish radical in the character, so to be completely scientifically correct shouldn’t the character’s form be changed too?

    As for English, there has been some success in convincing people not to use the words “panda bear” and “koala bear”, although these “unscientific” terms are still used by many people. On the other hand, I believe the word “jelly” is used in some scientific contexts, instead of jellyfish, but I doubt if it will ever catch on in popular speech. I guess what John said is correct, these types of names are only likely to lead to debate when they are potentially misleading.

  22. After a long time of appreciating the Chinese 鳄梨 for “avocado,” imagine my surprise when I found out that the British usage is, in fact,, “crocodile pear.”

    Man, British people suck.

    • @Brendon

      “I found out that the British usage is, in fact,, “crocodile pear.”

      Er, no.

      Today, in Britain it is nearly always referred to as “avocado”.

      In the distant past, it was referred to as “alligator pear”, but I have never heard anyone use that in common parlance.

  23. you can have another list of medical terms in Chinese, they are more intuitive than English.

    It is so difficult for me to describle my problems here in US. Medical terms do not tell you what goes wrong directly.

  24. schtickyrice Says: June 16, 2005 at 9:41 am

    John, Todd

    Thanks for the corrections!

  25. well, edel, I hope I’m not missing your point, but I believe your problem is that medical terms in the US do indicate precisely what goes wrong — in Latin. ^_~

  26. Another dialectal example: 蝙蝠(bian3-fu2) is a bat, you know, the annoying looking, blind flying thing. In one of my native dialects the pronuciation was “twisted” into 鳖虎(bie1-hu-er, lit. turtle tiger – what gives).

    John and others talked about 河马(riverhorse) but in more than one northern dialects, 河马(he2-ma) is a pronuciation twist of 蛤蟆(ha2-ma) which means a frog.

  27. irv bennett Says: November 30, 2005 at 6:18 am

    how do you say “panda bear” in chinese?

    is it schoom mao??

  28. 四脚蛇 (lit. “four legged snake”) is more often used for monitor lizards (especially by “overseas” Chinese) you know those big sometimes semi-aquatic lizards common in S E Asia. 壁虎 (wall-tigers) are the little house geckos that climb walls and ceilings. Though they look more like crocs than tigers!

  29. As someone has pointed out, English does the exact same thing as Chinese here, except English borrows from Latin and Greek. Dinosaur (terrible lizard); hippopotamus (horse river); rhinoceros (nose-horned); etc.

    Oh yeah, “seahorse” is the same in both langauges.

    Panda can be both xiongmao and maoxiong.

    And, I didn’t know that crocodile had its own character, I thought “e” was like “evil” (as in “emeng” or nightmare). I was missing the whole fish radical thing. 😉

  30. Xuexiansheng Says: May 19, 2009 at 5:36 am


    Isn’t woodpecker 啄木鸟? or is 琢木鸟 also acceptable?

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