When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#37]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!


*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?