English words for mammal species, ordered by age

This is a list of English words referring to kinds of mammals, ordered by age. By ‘age’, I mean the earliest time at which the word was used in its current sense; for example, the word ‘deer’ is of Proto-Germanic vintage but it was originally used to refer to animals in general (like the modern German cognate Tier); the word was already used to mean ‘deer’ specifically in Old English, but the wider sense only became the more usual one by the 15th century, so I have listed the word as being only 500 years old.

I have not included words referring to animals of specific sexes or ages, except for the words ‘cow’, ‘bull’, ‘steer’ and ‘ox’. I have also not included words referring to animals that I wouldn’t expect most people living in England to have heard of, unless they are of especially old vintage (like ‘onager’).

Proto-Indo-European period (4000 BC – 2500 BC): beaver, mouse, swine, hound, wolf

Proto-Germanic period (2500 BC – 100 AD): ape*, horse, cow, bull†, steer†, ox, elk, whale, cat, fox, bear, weasel, seal

(note: ‘cat’ was borrowed from Latin at the end of this period, ‘ape’ is probably late as well although its origin is unknown)

Proto-West Germanic period (100 AD – 450 AD): hare, boar, sheep

Early Old English period (450 AD – 900 AD): shrew, ass, camel, tiger

Late Old English period (900 AD – 1100): rat, pig, dog

12th century (1100 – 1200): lion

13th century (1200 – 1300): dromedary, ounce, panther, leopard

14th century (1300 – 1400): squirrel, mole, bat, onager, rhinoceros, goat, dolphin, porpoise, lynx, hyena, polecat, elephant

15th century (1400 – 1500): monkey, baboon, porcupine, dormouse, hedgehog, hog, deer, reindeer, antelope, genet, marten

16th century (1500 – 1600): chinchilla, marmot, giraffe, buffalo, chamois, hippopotamus, civet, badger, armadillo, manatee

17th century (1600 – 1700): orangutan, guinea pig, woodchuck, lemming, muskrat, hamster, zebra, Bactrian, llama, peccary, moose, bison, gazelle, ibex, narwhal, jaguar, mongoose, jackal, skunk, wolverine, mink, raccoon, walrus, sealion, sloth, opossum, possum

18th century (1700 – 1800): chimpanzee, gibbon, lemur, rabbit, chipmunk, groundhog, donkey, tapir, alpaca, yak, gnu, beluga (whale), pangolin, ocelot, cougar, puma, cheetah, dingo, coyote, anteater, mammoth, wombat, kangaroo, platypus

19th century (1800 – 1900): gorilla, vole‡, gerbil, wildebeest, orca, meerkat, (red) panda, aardvark, dugong, bandicoot, koala, wallaby

20th century (1900 – 2000): (giant) panda

* The word ‘ape’ originally referred to both monkeys and apes (well, it first referred to monkeys, and then to apes; the Proto-Germanic speakers would not have been familiar with any ape species), and it is still used in this sense colloquially, so I have dated its origin accordingly; I couldn’t find any information on how early the word was used in the more specific sense.

† The words ‘bull’ and ‘steer’ were synonymous in Proto-Germanic, like the modern German cognates Bulle and Stier; I have dated their origin to Proto-Germanic, as if they were still synonyms, even though, strictly speaking, bulls are uncastrated and steers are castrated. I couldn’t find any information on how recently the specialisation of the meanings of these two words was (it was post-Old English, at least), so it was easier to do it this way.

‡ The word ‘vole’ is a shortening of an older compound ‘volemouse’, in which the ‘vole-‘ element had no independent meaning; I couldn’t find any information on it, but since the Dutch word for ‘vole’ is woelmuis and the German word for ‘vole’ is Wühlmaus, it seems likely that the compound goes back to the Proto-West Germanic period.

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2 responses to “English words for mammal species, ordered by age

  1. I would never have expected that beaver would be the oldest current mammal word in existence.

    • Me neither! “Beaver” has cognates in Latin (fiber), Russian (bobr), Lithuanian (bebras) and Avestan (bawrō), and possibly Sanskrit (babhrúḥ, which refers to some sort of brown animal, probably not the beaver since the animal wasn’t native to India), so it’s pretty widely attested. However, “beaver” is probably not the oldest current mammal word. At the Proto-Indo-European stage it was *bʰébʰrus, which is a transparent derivation (by reduplication) of *bʰeru- ‘brown’. Therefore, it is likely that the word was formed recently compared to some of the other words that survive from the Proto-Indo-European stage (“mouse”, “swine” and “hound”), which have unanalysable forms. The form of the Proto-Indo-European word for “wolf”, *wĺ̥kʷos, suggests that it might also be derived from another word, but it is less certain where it comes from. Since “swine” and “hound” now have the more common synonyms “pig” and “dog”, I’d say “mouse” is the word most deserving of the title of the oldest current mammal word.

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