Did you ever look at an animal and wonder how it got its name? A porcupine, for example: The name porcupine comes from the Old French "porc espin," which means "spiny pig." The name describes the animal.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, starting 500 years ago, they found many animals that were unknown to them. How did they go about naming the "new" animals?
Some namings are fairly obvious. Imagine seeing a small bushy-tailed animal up in a tree. It looks similar to the animal you know as a squirrel. But then you see it "fly." Wouldn't you name it a flying squirrel?
A quail-like bird was named "bobwhite." The name had nothing to do with what it looked like, although its tail is "bobbed" (short). Bobwhite comes from the bird's song: "bob-bob-bob-white."
Most animals already had been named by native Americans. In the cases of some unique animals, native names were adopted by settlers. The Spanish adopted the Incan word "yahma" to describe South America's wooly beast of burden. (The Spanish spelling is "llama," and so English-speakers mispronounce it "lah-muh.")
The native tribes of North America contributed several names to English. Below are words from the Algonquin family of languages; next to them are their meanings. Keep in mind that the meanings describe the animal or its activities. See if you can figure out the animal name we use today.
1. Mus: "he strips off bark"
2. Khalibu: "he who paws and scratches"
3. Arakun: "he scratches with his hands"
4. Atchitamon: "head first"
5. Apasum: "a white animal"
Answers: 1. moose; 2. caribou; 3. raccoon; 4. chipmunk; 5. opossum.