Lions, chameleons, and shih-tzus, oh my!: 12 “lion” etymologies

Liger is much older than you think. Tigon is even older.

Earlier this week, I let the etymological cat out of the bag for International Cat Day. Today, I keep with the feline theme for World Lion Day. Yes, these national/international days can get gimmicky—except where they raise money for wildlife conservation. But I really can’t resist a reason to explore words that come from the lion’s den, so to speak. Here are the origins of 12 lion-related words, with a few bits of other beastly lexical trivia scattered throughout:

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How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

You’re fired! (Pixabay)

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Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.


Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

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How were the “pyramids” built?

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has been under a lot of scrutiny recently for a number of questionable statements he’s made, past and present. One has concerned the Egyptian pyramids, which Carson believes were constructed by the Old Testament patriarch, Joseph, to store grain.

Experts have thoroughly dismissed Carson’s notion. But some scholars, ironically enough, have claimed that the word pyramid does store an ancient word for “grain.”

"Pyramid." Doodle by me.
“Pyramid.” Doodle by me.


Coming into English via French and Latin, the ultimate base of English’s pyramid is the Greek πυραμίς (puramis), which named the Egyptian funerary monuments we still marvel at millennia later. This Greek word came to name other structures of pyramidal shape, a sense development also observed in Latin (pȳramis) and French (pyramide). The stem of the Greek noun was πυραμίδ- (puramid-), which is ultimately why the English word features a d.

As far as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can tell, pyramid reached English as early as 1398, when, appearing in the late Latin form of piramis, it first referred to pyramids in the context of geometry. The word doesn’t explicitly refer to the Egyptian structures until the 1500s, at least according to the OED’s account.

So, how did the Greeks construct their word for pyramid? This question has sent many digging, including even the scholars of antiquity themselves.

Some have suggested the Greek puramis derives from πῦρ (pur), “fire,” due to the shape of the structure’s apex. Others have proposed a root in a similar word, πυραμίς (puramis), a kind of “cake,” whose shape resembled pyramids, apparently. Now, this puramis is derived from πυρός, (puros), meaning “wheat” or “grain.”  Other efforts have broken this puramis down to Greek words for “to measure grain” or “to collect grain.” Could the word even be connected to a Semitic root for “hill” or “fruit measure,” as has been speculated?

These explanations are really digging for it. As 19th-century American Egyptologist Lysander Dickerman sums it up in his discussion of the origin of pyramid: “To what straits we are driven when we become slaves to a theory!”

Other etymologies excavate in situ, linguistically speaking: Egyptian roots. One explanation claims the word is from the ancient Egyptian for “ray of the sun,” referring to the pyramid’s kin, the obelisk. Another, more common explanation posits an origin in the Egyptian piramus, among other forms, claimed to mean the “slant height” of the structure.

Alas, the ultimate origin may just be lost to the, er,  sands of time. But the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does have one theory that’s pretty ‘far out’: “of alien origin.”

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Last week, Donald Trump’s hot air inspired our look into bombast, where, for all of his bluster and braggadocio, we ultimately discovered the soft padding of cotton. They say all politics is local, but the etymology of cotton is global.

“Cotton candy.” Their etymologies have traveled to the Iowa State Fair from afar: Both cotton and candy have Arabic roots. Felt-tip and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.


Cotton cropped up in Middle English (coton) during the late 14th century, taking the word from the French coton. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that cotton‘s “early use in Europe was for the padding of jerkins* worn under mail, and the stuffing of cushions, mattresses, etc.”

Other Romance languages show parallel forms, but it appears the French picked up the word from the Spanish coton. The Spanish, in turn, threaded the word from Arabic. Yes, you should thank Arabic quṭn (قُطُن) for the 100% cotton in your tighty-whities. But you might want to pack an extra pair, as we may be traveling all the back way to that home of the finest of thread counts, Egypt.

See, some etymologists speculate that the Arabic qutn was borrowed from an Egyptian source. Philologist Eric Partridge directs us to the Egyptian phrase “khet en shen.”

E. A. Wallis Budge's entry for
E. A. Wallis Budge’s entry for khet en shen in his Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. Budge helped popularized Egyptology, though his scholarship and theories are not considered without problems.

Khet names a “plant,” “tree,” or “shrub,” while en means “of” and shen, “hair,” yielding “hair plant,” hence the cotton plant. Cotton is now sounding an awful lot like another feature of Trump: his combover.

* A jerkin was a tight-fitting sleeveless jacket, often made of leather. An acton was such a padded one worn under armor. The word derives from the Spanish algodón, ultimately deriving from the Arabic al (“the”) and quṭn. (“cotton”). 

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A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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Last week’s deadly attacks in Paris gruesomely reminded us of the true power of cartoons. Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoonists were tragic targets of terrorism, yet their work will endure as irrepressible, if complicated, expressions of freedom. Raised in rallies and inked on media covers, the pencil has come to symbolize that freedom but when we look to the etymology of cartoon, we put that pencil to paper.

"Cartoon." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Cartoon.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Despite any associations with Saturday morning, the first cartoon in the English language was high art. In 1684, we have reference to a “large Cartoone,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a drawing on stout paper, made as a design for a painting of the same size.” Over the next centuries, these drawings became transferred to other ones: By 1843, London’s Punch magazine applied the word to its full-page, humorous illustrations on current events. A cartoon in the animated sense is first attested in 1916.

English draws cartoon from the French carton, from the Italian cartone, a kind of heavy paper, or cardboard. This cartone is a form of carta, “paper.” Specifically, cartone is an augmentative form (in contrast to diminutive), with -one here conveying greater size than that of an ordinary leaf of paper. This -one is from a Latin morpheme and is mirrored in French’s -on and Spanish’s –ón, whose descendants populate the English tongue in everything from balloon to spittoon. Such augmentation makes sense when we consider the sense of strong, heavy paper preserved in cartoon’s earlier applications.

Now, the Italian carta is from Latin’s charta, a “sheet of papyrus” or “thin sheet of metal.” This is directly copied from Greek’s khartes (χάρτης), “leaf of paper” and “made from the separated layers of the papyrus,” Liddell and Scott tell us. Some etymologists suspect the Greek is from Egyptian, incredibly. Eric Partridge points us in particular to tche-t, “papyrus,” and tchamaa, “roll of papyrus” or “document.” (Paper is from papyrus, itself believed to be Egyptian in origin). Others see a connection to a Proto-Indo-European *g(e)r-, “to scratch,” which is what one would have done to mark on papyrus.

Cartoon keeps good etymological company. The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter,” is the 1215 foundation for the constitutional protection of liberties. A legacy of the French Revolution, France’s Charter of 1814 functioned as a sort of Bill of Rights. Both carta and charter are from Latin’s charta–as are cartography, cardà la carte, and cartels, adding globes, games, greetings, get-well’s, gastronomy, and gangs to our governmental derivatives. Carton, cartridge, and chart are also cognates.

The origin of cartoon is nothing to laugh at. Nor is it anything like cardboard in spite of being like the word cardboard. Its possible roots in Ancient Egypt is astonishing, too, if we take a long and wide historical perspective. In its own small, etymological way, cartoon embodies pluralism. Pluralism, which Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists championed–and died for.

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