Your names for tadpoles

April 3, 2016 • 7:49 am

by Matthew Cobb

A chat on Tw*tter today raised the issue of folk names for tadpoles – very appropriate for this time of year in the northern hemisphere, as they are all busy hatching out of their jelly. A tweep, @sammtank, said her son called tadpoles pollywogs. I had never heard of this term, but the OED confirms it being in ‘current use’ in the UK and it can be traced back to ‘polwygle’ in 1440. Amongst the variants listed by the OED are:

porwigle, pollywiggle, pollywoggle, pollywog, potladle, pollywig, purwiggy

So, gentle readers, what are your terms for ‘tadpole’ and, as BBC journalist @Vic_Gill asked me, what is the collective noun for pollywogs (or for tadpoles, for that matter)? She suggested ‘plethora’, but I suspect we’d be looking for something more anglo-saxon and less latin.

Chip in below with your folk and common names for tadpoles (so no ‘Freds’ ‘Ruths’ or other jokes unless they are VERY funny), and ideas about what a group of porwigles would be called.

87 thoughts on “Your names for tadpoles

  1. Yes. Pollywogs. Southern Ontario, Canada and that was the common name used by most young guys in elementary school in the 1950’s. My father would have said tadpole so where this came from, I have no idea.

  2. You never heard “polliwog”? The simple “tadpole” was the normal term in my childhood backyard (US Midwest), but I’ve heard “polliwog” here and there my whole life. (I didn’t know there were English names other than “tadpole” and “polliwog”!)

    As for collective: I dunno. Not “school”. How about “clutch”?

    1. Same for me in south eastern Pennsylvania (fringes of Pa Dutch country). ‘Tadpole’ by far the more common, with ‘pollywog’ heard rarely.

      1. That sounds about like my experiences in various parts of North and West Texas over the past 76 years. Mostly tadpole, with polywog being used as — I guess — kind of a slang. Or at least, informal. I don’t think I ever heard a collective noun for them.

        1. Growing up in the Panhandle of Texas (which is the north part of Texas, for you non-Texans, but is called West Texas, even though it is north-west of North Texas, which is more in the north of the eastern region of Texas…), I have to concur: both tadpole and pollywog are perfectly legitimate words for what becomes a frog.

          I’m confounded and befuddled that PCC has never encountered the word “pollywog.”

      2. The most common Dutch folk lingo is dikkopje, lit. little fathead. The more formal Dutch is kikkervisje – little frog fish (we like diminutives).

    2. Same for me growing up in Virginia. Tadpole more comment, but pollywog understood by everyone. I seem to remember “tadpoles and pollywogs” collectively, maybe when they were at various stages of development.

    1. *Like*.
      But, that should probably be “Mess o’ pollywogs”. Especially when the puddle dries up in the baking sun.

    2. Pollywog and tadpole interchangeably in Southern California for me too. As a child I used to collect them in jars from a local pond to follow their metamorphosis into tree frogs.

  3. Different language, but should resonate some in English: In Norwegian it is “rumpetroll”.

    1. I love that!

      I’ve always called them tadpoles in NZ and had absolutely no idea there was any other word for them.

  4. How about a “frog” of tadpoles/pollywogs for the collective.

    The term suggests what will become of the tadpoles and it is a railroad track switch feature (The Internet is your friend) so named because of its resemblance to frogs legs, or legs growing out of the body of a tadpole.

    Just a thought, anyway

  5. “Pollywogs and snakes” was an exclamation I sometimes heard in the family growing up (English but there is some Canadian/American ancestry).

  6. Also very common in New England. I grew up in Maine and we would catch the pollywogs in Mason jars. Watching their development into frogs helped spark my lifelong wonder and awe of nature.

  7. Well, not English, but if I translate the Dutch names to English literally, we use “Little Fatheads”(NL: Dikkopje) and “Little Frogfish” (NL: Kikkervisje) interchangeably.

    1. Scandinavia’s contribution:
      Danish haletudse = tail toad
      Icelandic halakarta = tail toad
      Norwegian (and some Swedish dialects) rumpetroll = rump troll
      Swedish grodyngel = frog fry

  8. Yes, certainly pollywog is used around here in the Midwest. For the salamander – the word is often Mudpuppy.

  9. An Israeli friend told me that the Hebrew name translates as ‘head beasts’ And the root ‘pol’ also is ‘head'(eg. Poll tax). So we all seem to be saying about the same thing.Tadpole likely incorporates the same root(?) I grew up in Scotland and never heard polliwog until I got to the states.

    1. The indispensable etymonline.com says that tadpole is from Middle English tadde “toad” and pol “head”, and polliwog is “probably” from the same pol plus wyglen “to wiggle”.

      1. Oh, and I grew up in northern New Jersey, where the usual term was “tadpole”, but I was also familiar with “polliwog”. My impression, which may be mistaken, is that I knew “polliwog” only through books and/or some nursery rhyme or other, and that it was rare to hear the term spoken.

        1. I suddenly came up with from my earliest memories the scots dialect word -powit-or something like that. ‘Pow’ again means ‘head’. And I think that word-or something close to it also means ‘seal’ as in a seal poking its head above the surface.

      2. We called then taddies when I grew up and just thought it was a shortening of tadpole, but may be it comes from taddle.

  10. “Pollywogs” and “tadpoles” were both in common use with “tadpoles” favored by people who had more schooling. School tends to reduce regional special terms.

    I suggest a “swarm” of pollywogs. They look like a swarm of bees moving through the water when they are young and stay in tight groups.

    Here in Ecuador, by the way, the word for “pollywog” is “widji-widgi” (phonetic spelling for English-speakers). I imagine this is from the quichua/quechua language of the Incas rather than from Spanish, but maybe some reader from Spain can confirm….

    1. Oops, left out a phrase: “Pollywogs” and “tadpoles” were both in common use IN THE MIDWEST with “tadpoles” favored by people who had more schooling.

  11. I can’t find it on-line, but years ago there was a Wizard of Id comic where the Wizard is walking along, and a frog on the side of the path says, “O Great Wizard, can you change me back to what I was before?”

    The Wizard says, “I’ll try. What were you before?”

    The frog says, “A pollywog.”

  12. Heard pollywog and tadpole interchangeably from day one ( lived all over but parents from Calif and SD). How ’bout a wiggle of tadpoles?

    Btw, what ever happened to The Wizard of Id?

    1. I was about to suggest a “Wriggle of tadpoles” myself.

      I never much cared for the whole idea of the unique collective noun. But if you’re gonna bother with it, at least make it something interesting and properly unique. Wriggle does that well enough.

  13. In Italian, they are called “girini,” roughly translated as “little twirlers” because of the way they swim.

  14. I only know the diminutive ‘taddlies’. I’ve not heard ‘pollywogs’ over here but I live in London. Probably too close to golliwogs, which is strictly verboten to the middle class.

  15. I like a wiggle of polywogs. How about a twirl of tadpoles? My dimmest memories recalls someone saying a passel of tadpoles.

  16. I am 54 years young and I have called them pollywogs my whole life, it’s the only name besides tadpoles that I have known for them.

    I am a California girl, born in No Cal and I live in So Cal and the name has always been the same for these, pollywogs.

  17. I haven’t thought about this in a long, long time, but I had thought that pollywogs were not the same thing as tadpoles, with “pollywog” being the next stage of development after “tadpole.” I vaguely remember seeing something on, maybe, Sesame Street laying it out like that.

    As a child in southern Ohio in the late 80s and early 90s, I took swimming classes as the YMCA. Children’s swimming classes were all named after various amphibians and fish, and one of the younger kids’ classes was called “tadpole.” Me, I took the “pollywog” class–for those of us slightly older and more advanced than tadpole–twice, and if I had shown any improvement, I would’ve graduated to “guppy.”

    As I’m typing this, I notice that spell check doesn’t recognize the word pollywog.

  18. Curiosity the disambiguation page for “pollywog” on Wikipedia also cites Pollywog as “a sailor that has not yet crossed the equator”. I wonder how these two definitions became conflated.

    1. A pollywog is a young frog. A Sailor who hasn’t crossed the equator is a young (or inexperienced) sailor.

      Both frogs and sailors live on the land and water, but mostly in the water.

  19. Growing up outside of St Louis, pollywog was the ‘countrified’ version of tadpole. And since my relations are about 90% country, heard that term a bunch. Even at our swim lessons, the beginner class was pollywogs, then minnows, etc.

  20. Pollywogs. That’s what all us kids called them at the creek and the pond in upstate New York. We knew tadpoles as the “formal” term.
    My vote goes for a wiggle of pollywogs.

  21. I looked up the etymology of “pollywog” and it means “wiggle head” in Late Middle English. The poll part is the head and the rest is from the verb, “to wiggle”.

    1. The German word is Kaulquappe, which my dictionary gives the same derivation for.
      Growing up in the UK, near London, I only remember hearing of tadpoles never pollywogs.

  22. The German word is Kaulquappe. Kaul is early modern German for round, thick head and -quappe seems to mean slimy blob, the etymologists aren’t sure.
    A slimy blog with a round head seems about right…

    1. Funny how some of the names focus on the quality of the head (thick, round, slimy blob, etc.) while others focus on the tail or the wiggling or the wiggling and the head.

      It’s sad the meaning is lost in modern English as so often happens in English.

    1. Well that took a sinister twist. I wonder if the person who named them thusly, fell into a puddle of them ass first!

      1. Rumpe can mean “tail” as well as “ass”, though, so I guess “tail troll” makes somewhat more sense.

  23. Add me to the “pollywog” list. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, raised by parents who grew up in the New York and Connecticut.

    (So I don’t know if my parents taught me that term or I learned it “in the gutter” from other kids.) (Also my mom is very literary with a particular taste for British work, so I had lots of British children’s books. I could easily have seen it in one of those.)

  24. Yahoo’s answer to “what is a group of tadpoles called?” is “army” (if frog tadpoles) or “knot” (if toad tadpoles).

    I wish that a single tadpole (or pollywog) could be called a “wog” — because a group of them would then be a “polywog.”

    1. +1

      Somehow reminds me of the delightful term the Brits have for a line of young kids walking while holding hands or onto a rope: crocodile.

  25. I’ve heard of pollywogs for tadpoles, though we only used the latter term. I’ve also heard of sallies for salamander larvae.

  26. I’m from Connecticut. “Tadpoles” were small and black and grew into regular frogs. “Polliwogs” were large and green and grew into bullfrogs.

      1. Thanks. Never thought of toads, for some reason. Anyway, small black ones were tadpoles, big green ones were pollywogs.

  27. The collective noun you seek is either ‘a pond of pollywogs’ or a ‘puddle of pollywogs’.

  28. In the SE / Home Counties of the U.K. I’ve only ever heard the term tadpole; nothing else at all.

  29. I was raised in a small rural anthracite coal mining town in Eastern PA (I’m 69)where some archaic English words were in common use. We used the term pollywog for tadpole. However, everyone knew the word tadpole and that it referred to what we called pollywogs.

    John B.

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