What a dull tale hunters would tell if we identified every bird and mammal with humdrum terms like “male deer,” “female turkey,” and “young sheep.”
That simply won’t suffice in today’s world that prefers to pack maximum meaning into every word. Perhaps the short, snappy simplicity of “buck,” “hen” and “lamb” help explain why North America alone has at least 28 distinct names for the males, females and young of elk, deer, foxes, bears, moose, sheep, rabbits, coyotes and pronghorns; as well as ducks, turkeys, pheasants, geese and grouse.
Besides, things would get tedious if we always inserted “male,” “female” or “young” before those names. In fact, English speakers are taught to avoid such repetition. In his 1880 book, “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain noted that dislike when comparing the English and German languages.
“The Germans do not seem afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one. They repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition might be bad, but surely inexactness is worse.”
And yes, the English language has strong Germanic roots, but English clearly distinguished itself over the centuries. Its users relentlessly sifted and borrowed from other languages to build an increasingly rich reservoir of descriptive words for everyday use. Many such words first evolved to describe domesticated fowl and livestock, and then naturally paired up with the most appropriate wild birds and four-legged wildlife.
Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary, thinks that artistic creativity separates Homo sapiens from apes and earlier humans. Geist is working on his second book on human evolution, titled “Condemned to Art and Insanity: Our Natural History.” When asked why people have long bestowed birds and animals with sex- and age-specific names, Geist replied:
“In our species, and not in our parent species ‘Homo erectus’ or our sister species ‘Neanderthal,’ we’re driven as if by instinct to beautify everything we touch. We cannot take it plain. We must conjure up something eye-catching or ear-catching if it has any value, or is eye-catching in itself. Herring are not overly eye-catching, but drake mallards and tom turkeys are. I suggest this propensity to generate the artistic is in our genes, and extends itself to everything we do.”
Here’s a look at the likely origins – or etymology – of some of the many names English speakers apply to North America’s common game birds and animals, courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary, and Dictionary.com.
Buck (male deer, rabbits): Derived from Old English “bucca” or male goat, common Germanic “bukkon,” Middle Dutch “boc,” and old Norse “bokkr,” which were all terms for male deer. Origins: 1300s.
Bull (male elk, moose): Derived from “bule” and Old Norse “boli,” for bull or male of a bovine animal; perhaps also from an Old English term. Origins: 1200s.
Cow (female elk, moose): Derived from Middle English “cu,” “qu,” “kowh;” Old English “cu” (cow); common Germanic “kwom,” and Scottish and Northern England “quey,” for the female of a bovine animal. Origins: Late 1300s.
Doe (female deer, rabbits): Derived from Latin “damma,” for deer. The expression “doe-eyed” girls dates to 1845.
Fawn (young deer): Derived from Anglo-French (late 1200s) and Old French (1100s) from “faon” or “feon;” which first meant “young animal” and then “young deer” from Vulgar Latin by the mid-1300s. Evolved from Latin “fetus” or offspring.
Calf (young elk, moose, caribou, pronghorns): Derived from Middle Dutch “calf,” Old Norse “kalfr,” German “Kalb,” Gothic “kalbo,” and short for “calf-skin.” Origins: 1150 to 1500s.
Bunny (young rabbit): Derived from the Scottish dialect “bun,” a pet name for rabbits (1680s), and previously (1580) for squirrels. Could have come from the Scottish word “bun,” which meant the tail of a hare (1530s); or from the French “bon” or a Scandinavian source.
Ram (male sheep): Derived from Old English “ramm,” Middle English “rammen” and earlier West Germanic “rom,” for male sheep. Origins: Before 900.
Ewe (female sheep): Derived from Old Irish “oi,” Old English “eowu,” Latin “ovis” and Welsh “ewig.” Origins: Before 1000.
Lamb (young sheep): Derived from Old English and Middle English “lomb,” Northumbrian (northeastern England) “lemb,” Dutch “lam,” German “Lamm,” and common Germanic “lambaz,” as well as Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old Frian and Middle Dutch. Origins: Before 900.
Dog (male fox, coyotes): Considered a mystery word of unknown origin, perhaps from the Spain/Portugal area or from Old English’s “docga.”
Vixen (female fox): Derived from Old English “fyxen,” Middle High German “vühsinne,” and German “füchsin.” The spelling shifted from “f” to “v” in the late 1500s. Origins: 1375 to 1425.
Bitch (female coyote): Derived from Old English “bicce,” Middle English “bicche” and Old Norse “bikkja.” Germanic origins: Before 1000.
Kit (young fox): The Oxford English Dictionary says the word’s origins are unknown.
Pup (young fox or coyote): Shortened from puppy, which possibly derived from Old French “poupee” doll or plaything. Origins: Late 1400s.
Cub (young fox, bear, mountain lion): Derived from “cubbe” or “young fox” by the 1520s, but its exact origins aren’t known. It also might have derived from Old Irish “cuib” for whelp, or Old Norse “kobbi” for seal. Its use was extended to the young of bears and lions after 1590.
Boar (male bear, feral pig): Derived from Old English “bar” and common Germanic “bairaz,” which was basically an uncastrated male swine. Origins: 1200s to 1300s.
Sow (female bear, feral pig): Derived from “su,” a maker of sound or noise, apparently from the Sanskrit word “sukharah.
Tom (male turkey, mountain lion): This word was applied to male kittens by the 1200s, and has been applied to some male birds since at least 1791.
Gobbler (male turkey): First known use as a word for the male or “cock” turkey was 1737.
Hen (female turkey, mallard, grouse, pheasant): Derived from Old English “henn” and West Germanic “hannjo,” for the female of domestic fowl. Origins: 950 to early 1300s in English.
Drake (male duck): Derived from West Germanic “drako,” German dialect “drache,” and Old English “draca,” which meant dragon or sea monster, and an early borrowing from the Latin word “draco” for dragon. Origins: 1300s.
Duck (female duck): Derived from Old English “duce,” “diver” or “ducan,” which meant to duck or dive. It eventually took the name for these birds. Origins: Earlier than 1100s.
Cock (pheasant, grouse): Derived from Old English “cocc,” Old French “coc,” Old Norse “kokkr, Albanian “kokosh,” Greek “kikkos,” Sanskrit “kukkuta,” and Malay “kukuk.” Generally meant the male of domestic fowl. Origins: 1100s.
Gander (male goose): Derived from Old English “gandra” and common Germanic “gandron” for male goose, and Lithuanian “gandras” for stork. Origins: Earlier than 1100s.
Goose (female goose): Derived from Old English “gos,” common Germanic “gans,” Old Norse “gas” and German “gans.” Origins: Earlier than 1100s.
Duckling (young duck): Derived from Middle English “dookelynge” in the early to mid-1400s. The “Ugly Duckling” is from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale from 1843 in Danish and 1846 in English.
Gosling (young goose): Derived from Old Norse “gaeslingr,” and “gos” with suffix to replace Old English “gesling.” Origins: late 1200s to mid-1300s.
Those aren’t all the words used to describe North American birds and wildlife, of course, and English isn’t the only language with words designating the males, females and young of birds and animals. Scholars note, however, that such words aren’t common in Italian. No matter what the language, few words define age or gender in fish, reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans, which aren’t easily identified by size, colors, horns, antlers or other physical traits.
The reasons for these differences aren’t all practical, either, as Geist credits our appreciation for natural beauty.
“Humans do not overlook something that’s eye-catchingly artistic,” he said. “We express our interest by adding an artistic prefix, suffix and all other fixes combined.”