I just discovered the Collation of language names page on the OED site; created to help users deal with the plethora of varying abbreviations used in the days before they decided to simply give all language names in full, it’s a staggering demonstration of the number of languages to which reference must be made in fully describing English. (I was amused on the A page to see that the second item was “Aboriginal”; I assume that referred to any of the native langugages of Australia, and that it’s long since been retired in favor of actual language names. Oh dear, and a few lines below that is “African”—I hope that was retired a long time ago.)


  1. Nope. kangaroo is “Aboriginal” (actually, Guugu Yimidhirr), as is boomerang (although narrowed down to NSW). pindan, the one contribution Bardi’s made to English, is also “aboriginal” (I wrote to them about that one).

  2. What’s ‘zebra’ labelled as these days? Dictionaries traditionally give it as some unidentifiable African language. Larry Trask was pretty sure it was actually from an irregular progression *ecifera

  3. … < equi-fer- ‘wild horse’
    … but with a &lt; instead of the symbol that cuts off the comment…

  4. [Congolese. Cf. F. zèbre, It. (Florio, 1598), Pg. zebra, Sp. cebra.]

  5. “Congolese,” huh? Well, it’s better than “African.”

  6. Sometimes secondary sources may report the origin of a word being given by a native in Africa, but the source itself is so undescriptive that the precise origin cannot be traced.
    Herodotus reporting the existence of “gorillas” comes to mind– the guide retained by the Phoenecians described those animals with that term. In turn, the word reached Herodotus who reported it. What’s the origin of the word? Some would say “African” — some indeterminate African language. I can’t say what the OED’s take on this word is, as I don’t have access to it from my home network connection. (via we have “[New Latin, from Greek Gorillai, a tribe of hairy women, perhaps of African origin.]”)
    (also, as an aside, it is speculated that the Phoenecians retained a Berber-speaking guide and the term “gorilla” comes from the Berber word “gurel”, which means something akin to “little people”)

  7. The OED says:
    “An alleged African name for a wild or hairy man (strictly for the female only), preserved (in acc. pl. gorillas) in the Greek account of the voyage undertaken by the Carthaginian Hanno in the 5th or 6th c. B.C.; hence adopted in 1847 as the specific name of the ape Troglodytes gorilla, first described by Dr. T. S. Savage, an American missionary in Western Africa.”
    Which is fine, and “perhaps of African origin” is fine; it’s the use of “African” as a language name that bothers me.

  8. ktschwarz says

    Pindan was updated in June 2006 and now shows the origin from Bardi — but the name Bardi itself isn’t in the dictionary. That doesn’t seem right. If a language is referenced in an etymology, I’d think it should automatically get an entry.

    Re zebra:

    [Congolese. Cf. F. zèbre, It. (Florio, 1598), Pg. zebra, Sp. cebra.]

    That’s from 1928, not updated in the OED2.

    Larry Trask was pretty sure it was actually from an irregular progression *ecifera < equi-fer- ‘wild horse’

    And so are almost all other dictionaries from the 1960s onward: e.g., Webster’s 7th New Collegiate (1963), Random House (1968), American Heritage (1969), and later editions all derive it from Romance languages with no mention of an African source.

    zebra was revised in the OED in June 2018, giving the full story:

    Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from Italian. Partly a borrowing from Portuguese. Etymons: Italian zebra; Portuguese zebra, zevra.
    Etymology: < (i) Italian zebra … and its etymon (ii) Portuguese zebra, zevra …, apparently a transferred use of zevra, zevro kind of feral horse of the Iberian peninsula (12th cent.; compare note) < an unattested post-classical Latin form *eciferus < classical Latin equiferus wild or feral horse (Pliny) < equus horse (see hippo- comb. form) + ferus wild …

    The feral horses of the Iberian peninsula appear to have become rare or extinct in the early modern period. They are reported to have been partially striped.

    Former suggestion.

    The word was formerly sometimes believed to be < an African language, probably based on early reports of the name being used by the inhabitants of the Kongo region (e.g. H. Ludolf 1681, in the passage paraphrased in quot. 1682); however, this is more likely to refer to the language of the Portuguese settlers in the region.

    If we have to wait 90 years for an update, then it should be a really excellent one like that, which explains where the old one comes from and why it was wrong!

  9. Amen!

    Unfortunately, the language names page seems to have disappeared — the link redirects to the Help page.

  10. David Marjanović says

    *Equiferus? What an odd way to form a word.

  11. How is pindan an English word? I’m in Western Australia, and have never heard the word Pindan used, except as a name of a construction firm which ignominiously went bust earlier this year leaving hundreds of subcontractors out of pocket.
    The Bardi are an Aboriginal group living in the northern part of WA.

  12. Equiferus : horsebeast?

  13. How is pindan an English word?

    It’s used in English. Here are the OED citations:

    1888 Proc. Linn. Soc. New S. Wales 2 1018 The coast on the east side of King’s sound is low and swampy, bounded eastwards by ‘Pindan’ sands and gravels, a pliocene formation which extends inwards for upwards of 60 miles.
    1910 Emu 9 148 The country immediately around Broome is covered with fairly dense scrub, and is known locally as Pindan country.
    1934 T. Wood Cobbers iv. 46 His black trackers were making boomerangs… Pindam gum: hard red wood, shaped from a knee in the timber.
    1955 J. Cleary Justin Bayard xi. 153 They would be out in the pindan watching the homestead.
    1978 O. White Silent Reach ii. 22 Half a million acres of pindan country..carried two thousand head of merino sheep in a good season.
    1983 R. J. Petheram Plants Kimberley Region W. Austral. 363 In the North Kimberley region periodic burning is considered necessary to prevent Pindan Wattle invasion of improved pastures.
    1995 Wildlife Res. 22 413 Species composition varies almost continuously from coastal wet monsoon rainforests to..pindan woodlands to gidgee woodlands.

    The fact that you’ve never heard it is neither here nor there; the English wordhoard is huge, and none of us have heard more than a small fraction of it. The OED’s job is to record all of it beyond nonce usages; if you want a listing of common words you’re likely to be familiar with, there are plenty of smaller dictionaries.

  14. Oh, and the definition (for those who are curious) is “A tract or area of arid, sandy country characteristic of northern Western Australia; the low, scrubby vegetation occurring in such areas.”

  15. Rodger C: Horsebeast sounds like something from science fantasy (Fred Saberhagen or Gene Wolfe, maybe).

  16. David L. Gold says

    @ Roger C. Equiferus : horsebeast? Horsebeast sounds like something from science fantasy.

    Horsebeast is an attested English word going back to before the mid 1800s. See on the Horsebeast Heritage Exhibition.

  17. OED:

    horse-beast n.
    1573 in W. H. Turner Select. Rec. Oxf. (1880) 347 Every beast as well horsebeast as other.
    1587 A. Fleming et al. Holinshed’s Chron. (new ed.) III. Contin. 1543/1 They wrought altogither with horsbeasts.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Horsebeast sounds like something from science fantasy (Fred Saberhagen or Gene Wolfe, maybe)

    Gene Wolfe would stick with equifer (assuming he didn’t go for hippother, which he probably would.)

  19. John Emerson says

    Hartebeest would seem to be a similar word, given that the hart is already a beast,

  20. And then there’s the wildebeest.

  21. @David Eddyshaw: As I recall, Wolfe actually used the rather more ordinary destrier (not a common word, to be sure, but nowhere near as obscure as some of the mentioned possibilities), which has the further advantage of not containing any morpheme that actually means “horse” (just as his carnivorous destriers probably have no horse DNA). The origin of destrier is, per the OED ultimately:

    late Latin dextrārius, in full equus dextrārius, < dextra right hand: so called from being led by the squire with his right hand;

    so the actual “horse” morpheme has indeed been completely lost.

  22. Oops, I’ve lost the ability to edit. I wanted to also mention that I would have linked to the Don Maitz’s home page for the original cover painting from Citadel of the Autarch (I usually try to link to artists’ own sites to give them proper credit for their work), but apparently he has futzed with the image, and the updated version makes Severian look way too beefcake (a term coined by Hollywood rumor-monger Sidney Skolksky, apparently).

  23. The OED says coca comes from “Peruvian” cuca.

  24. Re Pindan

    Thanks for the citations. It looks like the word has been used for a long time.

    However i’m from WA and have never heard of it though i’s supposed to be a WA word. It’s not mentioned in the Macquarie Dictionary which is meant to be Australia’s national dictionary and is full of these native words.

    I’d guess it has a very limited circulation maybe restricted to the Kimberley. Good on the OED for picking it up.z

  25. ktschwarz says

    Which version of the Macquarie Dictionary doesn’t have pindan? It’s in the 1981 first edition (Internet Archive); I don’t have a subscription to the latest online version, but it’s hard to believe they would drop it from unabridged editions. It’s in OUP’s Australian National Dictionary as well. Outside of Australia, it made it into the Random House Dictionary (unabridged) in 1987 and its successor, and it’s in the Collins dictionary online as well.

    It’s too bad the OED’s list of languages is gone. Instead, there’s a feature in Advanced Search where you can search on “Language of Origin” not only by language but also by language family, which is great, since it’ll turn up languages you didn’t expect! Caution #1: this only indexes the immediate source language, so e.g. if you select Malayalam, it won’t find mango since that came into English via Portuguese. Caution #2: some entries don’t seem to be correctly tagged for family: searching for Algonquian fails to find skunk and woodchuck; searching for Salishan fails to find sasquatch and Salish itself.

    If you already know the name (and spelling) of a language, you can search for it in Etymology-Language and then you’ll get all entries that mention it anywhere in the etymology: e.g. search on Persian and get orange among the results. But if there’s a way to get a list of all ultimate source languages, or all languages mentioned in etymologies, I haven’t found it.

  26. It’s also in my 1996 edition of the Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary:

    pindan n. 1 (also pindan country) arid, sandy country characteristic of stretches of northern WA. 2 (also pindan scrub) the low, scrubby vegetation occurring in such country. 3 any of several plants typifying such vegetation, esp. a small wattle. (❡ Bardi bindan the bush.)

    Clearly, it’s a well-established word. Again, I caution against relying on personal experience for such judgments.

  27. (I am proud of having dug up that curved-stem pilcrow to exactly reproduce the entry.)

  28. John Cowan says

    hartebeest […] wildebeest

    These two uses of beest actually have different senses in Dutch. Fundamentally there is an opposition beest/dier referring to wild-or-savage or tame-or-domesticated, dier being the neutral word; but beest is also a specific word for a domesticated bovine. So hartebeest means ‘deer that is wild/savage’, whereas wildebeest means ‘wild bovine’.

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