Looking up something else in my Merriam-Webster, I ran across ridley, the name of two varieties of sea turtle. What struck me was the conjunction of the etymology and the date, respectively “unknown” and 1926. There are lots of words with unknown etymologies, of course, but you’d think that recent a word would not be a total mystery. Wikipedia, in its Kemp’s Ridley article, says:

These turtles are called Kemp’s Ridley because Richard Kemp (of Key West) was the first to send in a specimen of the species to Samuel Garman at Harvard. However, the etymology of the name “Ridley” itself is still in question. Prior to the term being popularly used (for both species in the genus), L. kempii at least was known as the “bastard turtle”.

I wonder if the OED will turn up anything more when it gets to this word in its ongoing revision?


  1. Cherie Woodworth says

    Ever an ardent friend to sea fauna, let me be the first to jump in on a topic about which I know nothing… There’s an interesting discussion of the name in the Marine Turtle Newsletter, found here:
    It suggests that “ridley turtle” is derived from “riddle turtle” (admittedly, hard to say), the riddle being where it bred (hence the alternate name, bastard turtle).
    May be true, may be folk etymology — but even turtle specialists do not know.

  2. The OED2’s first quotation says:

    1942 A. F. CARR in Proc. New England Zool. Club XXI. 8, I believe that a change in the non-technical designation of kempii is indicated. Some time ago..Stewart Springer…told me of a species of sea turtle, known locally as the ‘ridley’, which was recognized as distinct by the natives of the Keys.

    “Known locally” sounds to me as if ridley is of long standing in the (future) Conch Republic, but was made known to the wider community only in the 20th century, though I suppose it’s conceivable that it means “known since 1926”.
    The OED also quotes the EB on the etymology of bastard turtle: “stemming from the mistaken belief that it is the offspring of a green turtle and a logger-head”.

  3. Someone on Pharyngula is bound to know.
    Believe it or not.

  4. …the riddle being where it bred…
    What does ‘the riddle’ mean in this context, please ?

  5. “riddle” sounds suspiciously like a folk etymology

  6. Off topic: I’d love to see what linguists here say about this: What English sounds like to foreigners.

  7. What does ‘the riddle’ mean in this context
    Merriam Webster:

    Pronunciation: \ˈri-dəl\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English redels, ridel, from Old English rǣdelse opinion, conjecture, riddle; akin to Old English rǣdan to interpret — more at read
    Date: before 12th century

    1 : a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed : conundrum, enigma 
    2 : something or someone difficult to understand

    There is also a phrase “riddle me this” that gets some 2 million ghits, but for some reason it’s something I associate with either Appalachian or British usage. There yet another meaning for riddle as a verb: “1 : to separate (as grain from chaff) with a riddle : screen 2 : to pierce with many holes 3 : to spread through : permeate

  8. [Slaps head] I misunderstood Cherie Woodworth’s use of riddle – the riddle being where it bred as being the location (a local name for sandbars or cays or so forth) where the turtles bred, rather than meaning it was a puzzle where they bred.
    There are so many arcane names for maritime features …

  9. This has nothing to do with it, I’m sure.

  10. What is that creatures, Ridley? I’m trying to search the image. I found to possible result first turtle and the last a creature like pterodactyl.

  11. O: No, but I constantly re-read it…

  12. As well as Graham Greene, if I may hazard a guess?

  13. arcane names for maritime features
    Remembering that another meaning of “riddle” is a screen for separating grain, I skimmed the OED to see if there wasn’t a maritime usage as well. I didn’t find one, although I did find the information that in the Scottish and north dialect, “turning the riddle and shears” was a mode of divination for the discovery of theft.
    Scanning the entries I did find an entry for the archaic “ridel”, and its variation “rydely” [a. OF rideler, f. ride wrinkle, fold], which unlike “riddle” has only one d.
    While “ridley” is supposed to be a noun, the creature is also called “Kemp’s ridley turtle” which makes it sound more like an adjective.
    Could this name be a way of identifying the turtle as being more wrinkled than other turtles, that is, “Kemp’s wrinkly turtle”?

  14. According to Harold A. Dundee, writing in Marinte Turtle Newsletter in 2001, the etymology of “ridley” was still a riddle:

  15. John Cowan says

    No news on ridley, but news on ridleys. For the first time (as far as is known), Kemp’s ridleys successfully hatched on a NYC beach; indeed, this is the most northerly hatching on the Atlantic coast of North America. The eggs were laid in July, but when September rains eroded the beach they were on, they were dug out and incubated. 96 baby turtles survived and were released close to the spot where the eggs were laid. Hopefully in 10-15 years some will return to lay their own eggs. Local newspaper story.

  16. I realize that it’s been nine years, but since nobody has answered jasonflops’s question:

    Ridley is the name of a dragon monster from the Metroid video game series. He is a recurring boss and appears in almost all the games, starting with the original Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System. For whatever reason, Ridley has become the iconic enemy associated with the series, even more than the titular metroids.

  17. And he was named in honor of Ridley Scott, wasn’t he?

  18. Indeed so.

  19. John Cowan says

    most northerly hatching: I failed to mention that it is the most northerly hatching not only of Kemp’s ridleys (which normally hatch on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico) but of any sea turtle whatever.

  20. The OED updated the entry in June 2010, just half a year after my post; alas, they have not come up with any revelations:

    Various suggestions have been made about the etymology of the name, but none seems convincing. For a full discussion see H. A. Dundee in Marine Turtle Newsletter 58 (1992) 10–2.

    But they have antedated it:

    1897 Fores’s Sporting Notes & Sketches 14 249 For those who are out for sport, there are the Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, or the gigantic Trunkback.

  21. Ridley is an Anglo surname. I had a soccer teammate whose father was “Mr. Basketball” in Illinois. It seems more likely it’s related to the surname than that it derived from riddle.

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