What’s in a name? by ranger, Jamie Sangster


Every single species of plant, animal and other type of living organism on earth has a Latin name. In fact, some only have a Latin name and no English or ‘common name’.

It should be noted that about 70% of so-called Latin names are actually Greek or at best a combination of Greek and Latin! The reason for the term Latin names being coined is because their inventor was a famous Latin speaking Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus.

The purpose of Latin names is the systematic naming of every living thing, in an arrangement that indicates relatedness between organisms through their respective (evolutionary lineages) genera, families, orders, classes, phyla and finally kingdoms.

They are more familiarly known to evolutionary biologists as scientific names but are also commonly used throughout field guide books as a means of disambiguation where one species may have alternative names being used in different locations.

The names are usually tricky to pronounce and remember but often have interesting underlying explanations which can therefore be both informative and helpful!

To help you battle through, below are some interpretations of Latin names of some of the more commonly encountered larger animals on Arathusa…


African elephant / Loxodonta africana

Loxus (Gr) for slanting and odontas (Gr) or tooth referring to the diamond shaped enamel characteristic of their enormous teeth.

Plains zebra / Equus burchelli

From equus (L) – horse and Dr Burchell an English explorer who first described the species in 1824 from specimens in the Northern Cape which are now extinct.

Black rhino / Diceros bicornus

Although not commonly found on Arathusa, for interest and comparisons sake translates respectively as a “two horn – two horn” from Greek and Latin!

Warthog / Phacochoerus aethiopicus

From phakos (Gr) – a mole / wart, Khoiros (Gr) – a pig / hog and aethiopicus = Africa.

Hippopotamus / Hippopotamus amphibious

From hippos (Gr) for a horse and potamus (Gr) a river

Amphi (Gr) meaning around or encompassing both such as in an amphitheatre and bios (Gr) for living referring to its dual lifestyle of living on land and in water.

Giraffe / Girrafidae camelopardalis

from Arabic ‘zarafah’ meaning ‘one who walks swiftly’

Camelus (L) for camel and pardus (L) for leopard describing the animals peculiar coat pattern and build.

Grey duiker / Sylicapra grimmia

from silva (L) for wood or forest and capra (L) for a female goat grimmia is after Dr Hermann Grimm a German scientist who described the duiker in 1758.

Steenbok / Raphicerus campetris

raphis (Gr) means needle, keras (Gr) for horn and campestris (L) translates as plains.

Bushbuck / Tragelaphus scriptus

Tragos (Gr) for billy goat and elaphus (Gr) for deer as males of most antelope species belonging to the Tragelaphine tribe have beards. Scribo (L) means something written referring to the conspicuous white scrawl markings on their coat.

Greater Kudu / Tragelaphus strepsiceros

Strepo (Gr) means twisting and keras (Gr) for horn, describing their corkscrew horns.


Waterbuck / Kobus ellipsyiprymnus

Ellipse (Gr) is an imperfect circle and prumnos (Gr) for hind part / backside.

Impala / Aepyceros melampus

Aipos (Gr) for high \ tall, keras (Gr) horn referring to the long lyre shaped horns.

Melas (Gr) black and pous (Gr) for foot referring to the unique fetlock ankle gland.

Cape buffalo / Syncerus caffer

Sun (Gr) together and keras (Gr) describing the close together horns ie the boss.

Black-backed jackal / Canis mesomalis

From mesos (Gr) middle and melas (Gr) black referring to the black saddle.


Side-striped jackal / Canis adustus

From adustus (L) meaning burnt referring to its backs diagnostic rufous brown colour.

Wild dog / Lycoan pictus

Probably one of the most well known scientific names as its translation is sometimes used and been suggested as a more appropriate common name –  pictus (L) for painted and lukos (Gr) for wolf.

Honey badger / Mellivora capensis

Mellis (L) for honey and voro (L) to devour due to their fondness of honey, similarly raat from Ratel the Afrikaans name for the honey badger is Dutch for honeycomb.

Dwarf mongoose / Helogale parvula

Translates as, although not in order, a parvulus (L) very small, gale (Gr) weasel that lives on low ground (Gr) helos. Mongoose is from mangus of Indian language origin.


Spotted hyena / Crocuta crocuta

Krokotos (Gr) for saffron tinged coat – nothing to do with crunching of bones as is sometimes inaccurately stated! Although they are obviously very fond of this…

Cheetah / Acinonyx jubatus

From akaina (gr) a thorn and onux (Gr) a claw due to their non-retractable running spike claws and jubatus (L) maned after the cubs mimicking the ferocious honey badger. Chitraka from cital (Hindi) meaning spotted body.

Lion / Panthera leo
Lions belong to the cat subfamily Panterinae which include tigers, jaguars and also leopards after which the group is named and therefore derivative of their species names. So in fact lion’s scientific name’s translation is actually panthera (L) leopard, leo (L) lion… i.e. a leopard lion!

Leopard / Panthera pardus
The English common name leopard interesting is the revers situation of the lions Latin names origin in that it is formed from the Latin for lion and leopard i.e. leo (L) lion and pardus (L) leopard. Clearly there are two Latin words for the same animal although in English panther is usually referring to black leopard. In any case the Latin name’s literal translation is therefore leopard leopard!

Hope you enjoyed and found useful!


A.F. Gotch (1979). Mammals: Their Latin Names Explained. A Guide to Animal Classification.

*Ranger’s own notes

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