Die Tiere auf Deutsch

May 26, 2014 • 12:32 pm

This was highlighted in a tw**t from Tamsin Edwards, via Matthew Cobb. It’s accurate, as far as I know.


I love “Meerschweinchen” (“little ocean pig”) as the name for guinea pig. Where did that come from? And “Lazy animal” for “sloth” is great.

Which reminds me of a story: A city girl was visiting a farm for the first time, and, given a tour, saw a group of pigs around their trough, noisily slurping their slop.  “Ewww!”, she said. “No wonder they call them pigs!”


121 thoughts on “Die Tiere auf Deutsch

  1. Animals are way easier in German. I didn’t know that Dugong had a different name in German, but I can see confusing it with a guinea pig (see vs. meer). Too bad cows weren’t included since the manatee (the northern relative of the dugong) is Seekuh.

    1. I just looked it up at Wikipedia. Dugong is the common name in German, but you can also call them Seeschwein or Gabelschwanzseekuh (fork tail sea cow). Where is your Meerschweinchen now?

      1. I guess the squee I get with guinea pigs would allow me to remember the chen. Otherwise I’d just mix those up. I will stick with Dugong. Maybe a baby dugong would be Seeschweinchen and we’d really be screwed!

        1. Well, we need a way to distinguish dugongs from manatees, don’t we? What could be easier than call the former Gabelschwanzseekühe and the latter ones Rundschwanzseekühe?

    2. This is not only the case for animals. It is also true for many technical items. I never noticed this until an American friend of mine pointed this out to me what he likes to call his “caveman german” theory.

      Flugzeug – fly stuff
      Fahrzeug – drive stuff
      Wasserfahrzeug – water drive stuff
      Werkzeug – work stuff

      It works for a huge variety of different things.

      It usually takes an outsider to point out the ideosyncracies of a language. But it is always very entertaining when somebody does. For example I always enjoyed Mark Twain’s essay: “The awful german language”.

      1. I think it would be the same in English if it weren’t for the influx of other languages, esp. French which brought us a crap load of Latin words and different words for food.

        1. And of course some languages don’t seem to have
          words for certain new-to-them objects. The young Ukranians who installed a new window well to fix my daughter’s basement flooding issue were going “blah blah blah weeping tiles blah blah blah blah blah weeping tiles…” They said they did not know the word in Ukranian.

          1. Were they Ukranians who had been here a while? I had a Ukrainian friend growing up (whose mother used to ask her “why can’t you be friends with a nice Ukranian girl” when I came to her house) and when she talked to her mom she would through in the English words she didn’t know.

            Being good at languages and body language before I knew it, I knew what was going on – esp when she was expressing her disappointment at the weird mixed girl (me) with the non Ukrainian name. 🙂

      2. I think it would be the same in English if it weren’t for the influx of other languages, esp. French which brought us a crap load of Latin words and different words for food.

  2. Wonderful!!! Yes, where in the world did they get Meer for guinea pigs. Never heard of them going anywhere near the sea.

    1. I’m wondering if the better translation would be “little pig from overseas”. Since guinea pigs come from South America.

  3. “Trut” has no meaning in German and “Hahn” means cock, so the translation of Truthahn as threatening chicken looks a bit odd. The rest is correct. For the dugong, Seekuh (sea cow) is more common than sea pig, though.

    And yes, “Meerschweinchen” sounds strange even if you’re used to it!

    1. I can confirm this. According to Wiktionary, the Truthahn is onomatopoeically named (after the sound it makes), or how 16th century Germans heared it: trut. Hahn means rooster and is a generic term, with the female form, for various birds in the order Galliformes, and shows perhaps a sense of folk-taxonomy before Linnaeus showed up. The female form is Huhn (cf. hun), and also means just chicken. The grey partridge is for example a Rebhuhn, which is incidentially also named onomatopoeical (i.e. a type of chicken that makes a ‘reb’ sound).

      1. You should be aware that German ditinguishes three genera although in the case of chicken the use of “das Huhn” is somehow arbitrary. In principle it is the Netrum form which refers to both sexes. The correct German term for a female chicken is “die Henne”.

      2. My etymological dictionary says “Trut” is derived from the the “mittelniederdeutsch” Middle Low German?) verb “droten”. The modern form ist “drohen” – this translates as “to threaten”.

        “Hahn”, as has already been said, is the male form. For me, having learnt British English at school, the translation would be “threatening cock”, not “threatening chicken”..

    2. As a Dutch speaker, “truthahn” made me giggle. “Trut” in Dutch is a swear word used in anger against a woman, and “haan” is a homonym for the German “hahn”. So essentially it means “b*tchc*ck”.
      (Apologies if such language is unwelcome here – I mean no offence).

      1. Well, as it comes to a Dutch person’s complaints about the cost of the “huren”, it is probably the German who giggles.

        1. I may have told this story before of my Norwegian friend who came over to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in the early 60s to work on some Viking digs. They found some oars and the locals got really excited because they tend to drop their “H”s like Cockneys and thought that some Viking whores had been dug up…

    3. The “Kluge” (Etymologisches Wörterbuch) says Trut is most likely derived from middlelowgerman “droten” to threaten, oldenglish has “TrUtian” to swell with anger or pride.
      So threatening chicken is about right.

  4. There’s also that curious cousin of Die Fledermaus: Der fliegende Holländer. Surprisingly closely related, too! And they both trace their ancestry through Die Zauberflöte….



        1. clearly my age (and musical tastes) are showing through with Papagena;-) Apparently some crazy in Ottawa up in the top balconies started Papaing back to Papageno on stage and practically climbing over the sides…Her section mates had to drag her back…

  5. I’m now obsessed with the etymology of meerschweinchen. I see from Wikipedia in German that it is postulated it came from Spanish sailors brought them by sea to Europe.

    As with the English name, I’m sure there are lots of theories.

    1. I think there are a few animals with English common names alluding to the fact that they are “foreign”, but in some vague way. Like turkey, and guinea pigs. Neither of which come from the countries named, but somewhere “overseas”.

      A friend of mine who speaks Dutch told me that their word for guinea pig translates as “Chinese pig”.

      1. At least everyone seems to agree on the pig part in guinea pig. It seems French is the same as English: Guinée porc

        1. I’ve never come across the term Guinée porc, and it’s a pretty awkward construction, so I’m guessing it’s just a bad literal translation from the English.

          The common French name is Cochon d’Inde (cochon meaning pig, so they do still agree with that), but they also use Cobaye, which apparently comes from a Tupi-Guarani word. It’s interesting that all the pig-based variants seem to include different place names, none of which are where the things actually come from!

      2. And danishes ( the pastry) are dalled either norwegians or swedes ( can’t remember which) in Denmark.

    2. Now I know where the swedish “marsvin” comes from. “Mar” is distantly telling of (bad or perhaps huge) water, so the gm etymology helps to grok the swedish stolen term too.

      Sw “kalkon” for turkey is not grokkable though, I have to check that.

      1. “Kalkon” is from dutch “kalkoen”, a shortening of “kalkon höna” [“kalkon” hen].

        It seems to be another term of “animal from afar”: the east indian city of Kalikut has been used to point to an ‘indian hen’ because of mistaken identity. (Cmp fr: coq d’Inde, dinde; en: turkey, bird from Turkey !?).
        [ http://runeberg.org/svetym/0380.html ]

        _Now_ it’s grokkable. Barely…

  6. Of course, in English half the insects are called XYZ-fly even if they are completely unrelated to flies, and most marine animals are XYZ-fish even if they belong to a completely different phylum:

    Libelle = dragonfly
    Schmetterling = butterfly
    Leuchtkäfer = firefly
    Seestern = starfish
    Muschel = shellfish
    Sepia = cuttlefish

    Every language has its oddities that the native speaker doesn’t notice…

    1. I like centipede: der Hundertfüßer. It makes total sense but because the English uses foreign words (Latin), it is funny to hear it make sense like we should hear it in English. I blame 1066.

      1. Centipede is definitely a good one.

        Jerboa; die Wustenspringmaus (desert jumping mouse) has always been one of my favourite German animal words.

          1. Tausendfüßler, although the ones that have two segments fused into one are called Schnurfüßer and the short ones that can roll up are Saftkugler (juice-ballers, for some reason).

              1. Diana — get thee to Wikipedia. Millipedes are “mega-diverse, but understudied”, with at least 12K described species and maybe 70K yet to be described. Numerous subclasses, orders, families, lots of cool [and nasty] biochemistry.

                Too bad the huge Carboniferous millipedes didn’t make it to present — they would have been great “pets”, big enough for little kids to ride on. Perhaps Skutzenhunnertfussern? [Pardon me if that’s copyrighted by Ikea..]

              2. Haben well that’s OK that the huge exoskeleton endowed animals of the Carboniferous can’t live today. Scorpions would be awful!

            1. You’re absolutely right, Diana, about Tausend, but don’t think there’s an el in Füßer. This is such fun:-)

              1. No there is an “l” for some reason. I googled it. Alex SL also spells it with the “l” and he’s the German!

              2. Both are correct. Not sure how the l got in there, maybe a dialect variation, but both spellings are in both my dictionary and de.wiktionary.

              3. Yeah my Englisch-Deutsch Taschenwörtebuch doesn’t have the “L” and my super old 1958 Cassell’s German and English dictionary just says der Tausendfüß. Then I tried my BlackBerry (it has German installed) and it says Tausendfüßler.

                Very odd.

              4. Tausendfüßler to me sounds like a southern german dialect variety of the word.

                But I think it is sensible to stick to “Tausendfüßler” rather than “Tausendfüßer”, just to make sure that people don’t think we are talking about a 304 meter long animal 😀

        1. Also nice is the squirrel:
          * Eichhörnchen (oak croissant or little oak horn)
          * Eichkätzchen (oak kitten, only in southern Germany)

          1. I learned Eichhörnchen while admiring sqrls with some German hikers in Arches National Park. And, no, I did not confuse them by spelling it sqrls:-)

            1. Time to jump in here with a semi-OT comment merging “squirrel” with German.

              There’s a YouTube video of Germans trying their best to pronounce “squirrel,” without much success. The difficulty lies in trying to handle the semi-vowel sound of the American “r”.

              1. I’ve seen that video and I love it! I find that even Brits have trouble with the American/Canadian pronunciation of squirrel, which really is closer to sqrl;-)

      2. There’s the old saying that centipedes are called that not because they have one hundred feet but because most people can’t count past fourteen.

        1. LOL
          The 1000 in Tausendfüß(l)er simply means “OMG so many feet, can’t count them, it must be at least 1000”
          The 100 in Hundertfüß(l)er means “OMG so many feet, can’t count them, but it looks less than the feet on a Tausendfüß(l)er, so it must be 100”

          In medieval German literature 1000 is used to denote a huge – uncountable number of things.

          1. I’m sure it’s the same in English as I was wondering, when I started thinking about these names, how would one come up with centipedes have 100 legs & millipedes having 1000 legs.

            Kind of like the Ancient Greek “giga” for enormous. I recall another ancient word that means similar but now I can’t remember it and it is driving me CRAZY!

    2. “dragonfly” is actually my favourite ugly english word.

      On another note, did you know we Germans call the horse radish “Meerrettich” (sea radish)?

      1. And what does horseradish have to do mit dem(?) Meer? Schmetterling is a very beautiful German word.

        1. Schmettern (verb) means to smash something down violently. But the “ling” is diminutive, so that softens it a bit. Still, butterfly is a ridiculous word IMHO.

          Libelle for dragonfly is quite sweet too.

          1. Funny, I must’ve learned that word because it totally meant that to me so butterfly just made me laugh when I heard it.

          2. Bethlenfalvy further down got it right: the Schmetter-part is actually derived from an old German word for milk products, so it is similar to English. Apparently the name is derived from the fact that butterlies would be attracted to people making butter outside.

        2. Schmetter always made me think of squishing so I thought of Schmetterling as a squished butterfly.

      2. “Meerrettich/horse radish” makes more sense if you think of “Mähre” – a mare. Is actually rather close to the English term.

        Now if someone can explain why that plant is called “horse radish” to begin with.

        1. Google is your friend.

          horseradish (n.) Look up horseradish at Dictionary.com 1590s, Cochlearia armoricia; the common name preserves the once-common figurative sense of horse as “strong, large, coarse” (as in in obsolete horse mushroom, horse parsley, Old English horsminte “horse mint,” etc.); also see radish.

          1. Thank you for that.

            Perhaps the intake of large quantities of this plant would lead to “night-mares” (which have an analogous name in Dutch, “nachtmerries”)?

    3. Schmetterling means pretty much the same as butterfly, “Schmette” being a dialectal expression for cream.

      Sepia (in place of “Tintenfisch”) is used in academic language only.

      Anglophones, btw, are way more eccentric than German speakers as it comes to duck names:

      gadwell = Schnatterente

      garganey = Knäkente

      mallard = Stockente

      pochard = Tafelente

      (Eurasian) wigeon = Pfeifente

      (Eurasian) teal = Krickente

      (Greater) scaup = Bergente

      (Northern) shoveler = Löffelente

      (Common) goldeneye = Schellente

      (Norhern) pintail = Spießente

      etc. pp.

  7. The French for a sloth is ‘paresseux’ which means ‘lazy’. As, indeed, does ‘sloth’. Apparent laziness if obviously what people notice in this beast, otherwise it might be called the ‘only poops once a month and comes all the way down out of its tree to do it beast’

    1. Or the ‘only poops once a month and comes all the way down out of its tree to do it and also sometimes has algae on its fur beast’

          1. Ahhh, be a sport:-). A friend of mine dated an Indian guy who kept telling her to be a “game”. She finally realized he meant sport…

            1. Completely free-associating…a Persian friend of mine once went to a bakery and ordered a “duff-nut.”

              1. Why not?? Enough duffnut;-). My Chinese Quant Analysis TA always told us to mix our sorutions very thoruffly, and be sure to filter out all the junks. Such a nice guy he was – I would certainly butcher Chinese to a much worse extent.

              2. @ Merilee

                Ha ha!

                Yes, whenever I’m struggling with an Indian accented IT tech I try to remember that his English is much better than my Hindi. Infinitely better.

          2. OK, I’m going to take up my own challenge. German-speakers please feel free to criticize…my German is rusty.
            DasmonatlichessheißendemitAlgenamPelzTier. I haven’t gotten to the comes all the way down the tree bit yet.

            1. Not bad at all! I propose a slightly ungrammatical compressed version:


              by the way, the latin word for it is of course

              “algaepellis menstruegestus “

              1. Oh the coming down from the tree bit! So it’s

                Algenpelzmonatlichzumscheissenvombaumklettertier after all.

              2. Brilliant, Alex!! I realize that I shouldn’t have made the Das part of the word, and should not have capitalized Tier at the end. Great way to refresh my German!

                So egestus – or -gestus is the pooping part in Latin?

      1. Oy, a bit hasty there. “Trögdjur” is the whole order (?) Xenarthra. “Sengångare”, late [as in slow] walker, is more specific.

  8. I would rather think that Meerschweinchen should be translated into sea piglet. Ocean is in German, as in English, a rather big puddle. “Meer” is more generic and can be any large salt water. The Mediterranean is a “sea” and a “Meer” but decidedly not an ocean. Of course there are exceptions: the Steinhuder Meer close to Hannover is certainly a freshwater lake.

    Anyhow, it is a funny page.

    1. Aww that sounds cuter. All this talk of guinea pigs makes me want more. They are such sweet animals!

        1. I remember once I forgot to give them breakfast right away and they both stared at me with wide open eyes and squeaked loudly. When I tried to talk to them, they raised their voices as if to talk over me and tell me I forgot to feed them!

          1. Awwwww. 🙂

            Mine went off whenever they heard the crisper drawer of the refrigerator being opened. (In addition to other times, of course.)

      1. Guinea pigs breed like crazy. My daughter had a pair when she was in Jr. High and soon ran out of friends to pawn them off to. We later were informed by our vet that the female is fertile right after giving birth and we didn’t keep them separated at that time.

        1. Yes the females come into estrus a lot and the babies can even impregnate the mother so separating quickly is important. I had two female piggies. They pestered each other when they came into estrus as they did a display and humped the poor piggy not in estrus.

      1. We had a visiting medical student from Germany one time and on morning rounds the attending doctor described a patient and asked us what we thought she had. The German student said, “could it be morbus Basedow?” We all looked at him like he was crazy until the attending said, “Yes, exactly, Graves Disease, or morbus Basedow in German.”

  9. Chinese also uses the same term for raccoon- ‘wash bear’; though most new small mammals end up as some kind of “mouse”- even the kangaroo is called a ‘pocket mouse’ – ‘daishu’.

    My favorite name from Taiwan is for the poisonous snake ‘bai bu sher’- translated as ‘100- pacer’ because after it bites you that’s how many steps you get before dying.

    1. ‘Pocket mouse’ is great! Though it conjures up an image of a sweet little thing peeking out of a pocket. As I have spent time in close proximity to roos, that is not accurate: an 75kg male western grey is pugnacious and stinks, oddly, of rancid curry.

  10. This comment is very late, but also utterly trivial. It’s surprising that something as ubiquitous as butterflies are named so variously. Things we got at the dawn of agriculture are likely to have cognate names, and things more lately arrived, like coffee, are all the same.

    But: papillon, mariposa, schmetterling? It’s like we let the kids name them.

    1. Continuing further, look at “bird”:
      vogel (D), pajaro (E), ucello(I), oiseau (F).

      At least the Teutonic group of Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Swedish are close to the German, but holy crow! Look at the divergence from the Latin “ave” in the Romance languages!

      1. My guess is that these regions all had well established words of their own for ‘bird’ before the Romans came in. ‘Ave’ seemed silly especially when it is a homonym. ‘Bird Caesar’?

  11. Just think how bad this would be in Inuktitut, where the whole language seems to cram into single words – severely agglutinating, if I recall the vocabulary correctly. Then there’s many fewer phonemes, so one has to listen carefully …

Leave a Reply