Their names should be legion

April 5, 2016 • 11:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Following up on Matthew’s linguistic investigation of larval amphibians, I’d like to address another amphibian linguistic conundrum: the English words for adult members of the order Anura. Just as we have two standard words for a larval anuran in English, we have two standard words for the adults: frog and toad. But this linguistic duality comes nowhere near encompassing the biodiversity of anurans. There are, by many estimates, over 40 families of anurans. I myself consider this taxonomy a bit oversplit, but even a conservative taxonomy would have more than two dozen families. There are thus many more sorts of anurans than there are English words to name them. Why is this so?

The answer, I believe, is simple. In Great Britain, where the language developed, there are four native species: two frogs (Rana temporaria and Rana lessonae), and two toads (Bufo bufo and Bufo calamita). So in England, there are indeed only two sorts of anurans. Here’s one of the frogs, the common frog (North American readers will note the resemblance to our wood frog, Rana sylvatica, which also has a tympanic dark spot and dorsolateral folds):

The Common Frog (Rana temporaria), near Bad Kohlgrub, Bavaria. Photo by Richard Bartz (Wikimedia).
The Common Frog (Rana temporaria), near Bad Kohlgrub, Bavaria. Photo by Richard Bartz (Wikimedia).

And here’s one of the toads, the common toad (the green flecks are duckweed or some other plant):

Common Toad (Bufo bufo), Broomscroft, Kent. Photo by Peter K. Moore.
Common Toad (Bufo bufo), Broomscroft, Kent. Photo by Peter K. Moore.

We can distinguish frogs from toads, because frogs are more aquatic, with long hind limbs for jumping, webbed toes (easily seen above), and moist, smoother skin. Toads are more terrestrial, squat with short legs for hopping, and have dry, warty skin. And this distinction works for the anurans of Britain– the frogs are members of the family of “true frogs”– Ranidae, while the toads are members of the family of “true toads”– Bufonidae.

As the English encountered more kinds of anurans around the world, each new anuran was shoe-horned into being either a frog or a toad. Thus the long limbed, arboreal, jumping anurans of the family Hylidae (which English nobility would have encountered in their Continental estates) were called, aptly enough, tree frogs. And in the North American colonies, the squat, warty burrowing members of the family Pelobatidae were called spadefoot toads. But with dozens of families of anurans, and a great diversity of ecological habits and body forms, the distinction breaks down, and our English common names wind up forcing an exuberant diversity into just two names.

I wonder to what extent the biodiversity of a language’s native land influences the language’s naming diversity. In the only other language I (sort of) speak, Spanish, I know three words– rana (for frogs), sapo (for toads), and maco. The latter is a word I learned in the Dominican Republic, and it has a very different meaning in standard Castilian, as given by the Real Academia Española: it means ‘knave’ or ‘rogue’ if converted to a noun (in Castilian it is an adjective). It’s possible that the Dominican word is of Taino or West African origin, rather than Spanish.

So, I’d like to ask our non-Anglophone readers, how many words for kinds of adult anurans are there in your language? And how does this compare to the biological diversity?

[The title of the post refers of course to a story about demons in the Gospels. A Roman legion had 6,000 men (and there are about 6000 species of anurans). If each family of anurans should have a common name, there names would not be quite legion, but there would be a lot more than two!]

35 thoughts on “Their names should be legion

  1. Hi,

    From native-spanish (from Spain) speaker, and herpetologist. We have some additional extra variation: Rana, Ranita, Sapo and Sapillo, not much…

    Germán Orizaola

  2. German is exactly like English: toad is Kröte, Frog is Frosch with the same dichotomy. According to Wiktionary, Frosch goes back to an 8th century term with Indo-European roots. It’s something that hops around. Kröte appeared a century later and also means “uppity child” (though that’s rather old fashioned). That’s not far away from a roguish knave.

      1. Germany has two species of “Unken”: Fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina)in the east and north-east (up to the eastern part of Holstein), yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata) in South and Central Germany (often in mountainous areas, hence in German “Bergunke”).

        North West Germany (parts of Lower Saxony & North Rhine-Westphalia)is unkenfrei.

        Dialectal names are multifold and often funny & imaginative.

        Fanatic friends of anuran etymology and German philology might find this helpful:

    1. On a somewhat related amphibian/German philology note …

      Years ago, I was visiting a number of US National Parks in the Southwest, with my then-boyfriend and his parents, from Germany. On one hike, I spotted a Phrynosoma horned lizard, and decided to catch it (gently and briefly) in my hands, to show BF’s parents – especially his mother, who loved all kinds of animals. I grew up in Texas, where such lizards (usually Phrynosoma cornutum) are known as horned frogs or horny toads. BF’s mother was very interested in the critter, but insisted it was a “Molch,” which I guess is a salamander, and I kept insisting that it was in fact an “Eidechse.” This went back and forth until BF asked me to leave it, meaning both the taxonomy argument and the Phrynosoma itself, so I did. 🙂

        1. The German language is rather confusing on amphibians vs. reptiles. A turtle (or a tortoise) is a Schildkröte, or a “shield toad.” In general, though, I prefer German names for animals, e.g. Gürteltier for armadillo, and Schlangenhalsvogel for anhinga.

      1. I forgot about the Unke, which I know as a toad, and indeed the term doesn’t draw a sharp line between species — and is more often a fairytale creature, most people only know from the idiom “Unkenrufen zum Trotz” (lit. “despite the calls of the Unke”). It means “despite claims of someone’s demise/doom …” (…they are still doing great etc.) But correct, it’s a third one.

        Echse (pronounced like “Ex-ae” is Lizard and Eidechse is the name for the family of True Lizards Lacertidae.

        Lurch is the German word for amphibians. And Molch translates to “newt”, but also describes more general salamander.

        The animal names are often pictoral and hence cannot also reflect taxonomy at the same time, though I am not aware that is generally confusing. A tortoise is a kind of toad with a shield strapped to its back, isn’t it? Interestingly, German has no distinction (that comes to mind) between tortoise and turtle, which mirrors the toad/frog dichotomy.

      2. It’s just barely possible, depending on your ear for German pronunciation, that your BF’s mother was saying “moloch” which is the common name in English of a spiny Australian desert lizard (Moloch horridus) well known for being convergent with American “horned toads” (actually lizards, of course– Phrynosoma). The name comes from Moloch, a Biblical deity that demanded child sacrifice, so Germans would be familiar with the name.


  3. Classical Greek had batrachos = frog, phryne = toad; Latin rana and bufo as in Linnaeus.

    I’ve only found one word for tadpole, shared by both languages: gyrinos/gyrinus. This remains current in modern Greek and Italian (latter noted by Gary on the other post), contrasting with the multiple regional and neologistic words for pollywogs in some other languages.

    1. I’m not a herpetologist (wish I were) and I’d like to know why anuran replaced batracian in taxonomy? However, attempting to pursue the answer leads me to complicated discussions of evolutionary genetics. But whatever the reason, Batracian is such a neat word,and fun to utter, that I’m sorry to see it go.
      As an aside, I note the “Batrachomyomachia,” or “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice,” a parody of the Iliad. Anyone interested in reading it can use this link (horrors! just ignore the website name “sacred texts”) Also, interesting entry for “frog” in the Online Etymology Dictionary
      Whatever one calls ’em, though it dates me, I echo Buster Brown and say, “Plunk your magic plunker, Froggy!”

  4. To illustrate the problem, here is a taxonomic tree of amphibians, with an emphasis on the Anurans. The Ranidae are the true frogs, and Bufonidae are the true toads, but these families are but twigs on a large tree of anurans (!) I did not know this.

  5. I lived in New Orleans for a few years, and figured that Cajun French must have a few special names for Anurans, beyond grenouilles et crapauds. Sure enough, there’s a paper by Clifford L. Fontenot in the Herpetological Review (2004, 35:337-338) entitled “Cajun-French Common Names for Louisiana Amphibians and Reptiles.” The American Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) is called “ouaouaron,” Hyla treefrogs are called “rainettes,” and the Pseudocris chorus frogs (which I would call spring peepers) are called rain frogs.

    1. “Ouaouaron” is apparently an Iroquois word, or so I am told by a Qebuecois when I congratulated him on having such an excellent onomatopoeiac name for the species.
      Pseudacris are known as “rainette faux-grillon” in French-speaking Canada – false cricket frogs.
      “Rainette” is a great name for hylid – this is an instance in which English should indulge its tendency to steal words from other languages.

      1. Ahh, so the word “ouaouaron” probably made its way from Canada to Louisiana with the Acadians, like Evangeline Bellefontaine in Longfellow’s lovely (and sad) poem.

        1. Except that the idiosyncratic parts of Acadian French and Quebec French are (from the little I’ve seen) very often different. So, hm!

          (Incidentally, my Acadian friends can’t stand that poem, even if it does commemorate [sadly] an ethnic cleansing … My native friends also can’t stand _Hiawatha_, either.)

    2. This is all fascinating, and the replies. Thanks for the reference to the paper. “Rainettes”?! Love it!

  6. Same in Italian, “rana”(frog) and “rospo” (toad). Same as far as I know in my local Lombard dialect, “rána” from the same Latin root and “sciát” for toads (specifically Bufo bufo, the only species locally present I think).

  7. Haitian French and Kreyol have crapaud and grenouille. When I asked a Haitian what the difference between then was, I was told that when a crapaud urinates on your hand it will make you sick. Both are often sacks of water, sometimes, it seems, more water than the animal’s apparent volume.

  8. In reference to words in the same language having different meanings in different countries, when I was a senior in High School we had a Spanish exchange student, Pedro (unfortunately he was killed a few years later on the descent from a successful climb of the Matterhorn), who joined our cave-exploring club. One day, we were talking about a deep pit in Mexico, “Sotano de las Golondrinas” (hole of the swallows); he gave us a funny look, laughed, and said, “Sotano?”- that means “asshole”. Apparently it did in Spain at that time!

  9. Interesting and insightful post.

    The difference between frogs and toads to me is similar to the difference between turtles and tortoises. It seems turtles are like frogs (aquatic) and tortoises are like toads (terrestrial). Though there are exceptions in the order Testudines, just as there are in the order Anura. Though there are many more families of Anura, I do think the linguistic duality of Testudines also doesn’t encompass their biodiversity. Though maybe I’m off the mark here.

    1. There are a lot fewer species of chelonians than there are anurans. That said, in the two most recent evolutionary radiations of the chelonians, there are independently-evolved “tortoises” – box turtles are more closely related to aquatic turtles, even though they are (for most purposes) tortoises, than they are to true tortoises. And there are Old-World box turtles, as well, that evolved the hinged plastron independently of the New World box turtles, and likewise are more closely related to aquatic turtles than they are to any other terrestrial chelonians.

    2. Turtles, tortoises and terrapins are interesting in their varying usage, as we’ve noted before here at WEIT. A reprise:

      For the common names of these shelled reptiles, British and American usage diverges. In America, “tortoise” is applied to members of the family Testudinidae, the “true tortoises” (which are terrestrial). The word “terrapin” is applied to a single species, the Diamonbacked Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin, which inhabits coastal salt marshes along the east coast of the USA. Everything else is called a “turtle” (for example, the Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina).

      In Britain, “tortoise” is applied to all terrestrial species, which includes members of the Testudinidae, but also terrestrial members of other families (for example the Box Tortoise, Terrapene carolina, of the Emydidae). Fresh and brackish water aquatic chelonians are called “terrapins”, (for example the European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis). “Turtle” usually means a sea turtle (for example, the Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas).

      There are also special common names, such as ridley, slider, and cooter. Some are used in both Britain and Ameirca (for example Kemp’s Ridley, Lepidochelys kempii, a type of sea turtle), while some are used in one but not the other (for example, the American name for Trachemys scripta elegans is the Red-eared Slider, while in Britain it is the Red-eared Terrapin).

      These modal differences in British and American usage are not so much a code, but more what you call guidelines.


  10. Thanks for this. It really makes me wonder because I only know rana,sapo, frog, toad. Oh yes,guaxachil,I think it is an old Mexico name for those canyon frogs that sound like goats. Wahachil. Wish I knew more .

  11. “I wonder to what extent the biodiversity of a language’s native land influences the language’s naming diversity.”
    This linguistic shoehorning happens everywhere.

    In the Cook Islands, most introduced animals are classified as subspecies of rats (‘kiore’) or pigs (‘puaka’). So cats are kiore-ngiao (from the sound they make), dogs are puaka-aoa (again from the sound of barking), horses are pukak-oro-enua (pig that runs across the land), etc.

    Lest anyone feel like being patronising, just reflect on guinea pigs and hedgehogs…

    On the other hand, they have a plethora of names for different stages in the development of what we just call a coconut. (Which, of course, is not a nut and does not produce cocoa).


  12. Judging from the previous comments on this thread, this seems to be an European linguistic problem, since Anuradhapura diversity is not as high here, as in other parts of the world. The situation is the same in Swedish as in English. We have “groda” (frog) and “padda” (toad), and everything is shoe-horned into those two distinctions.

  13. Bulgarian: “zhaba” designates any anuran. I’ve just checked that we have 5 families of anurans: Ranidae (vodni zhabi, “water frogs”), Bombinatoridae (bumki, “noisy”), Hylidae (darvesnici, “tree-dwellers”), Pelobatidae (chesnovnici, “garlicky”) and Bufonidae, i.e. toads (krastavi zhabi, “frogs with skin rash”; “krasta” means scabies).
    Below family level, the names we have are not authentic local names but designations introduced by zoologists.
    In Russian, frog is “lyagushka” while “zhaba” is reserved for toads.
    To me, it is curious that there is no single English words for all anurans, for all acari and (in British English) for all chelonians.

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