African Names of Animals

What's in an animal's name? Most of us are familiar with many of South African animals common names or descriptive names. Some of the keener naturalists refer to animals by their Latin or scientific name.

These can be of particular interest as many of the common names are derived from the Latin name. Afrikaans names are also wonderfully descriptive in their translations. It is always interesting to try to find out some of the origins of these names. For example is there a connection between monk and monkey? 

Is there a connection between spied and spider? Bat and bat-an-eyelid? Horse and hoarse? Aardvark as earthpig? Hippopotamus is literally translated as 'river horse' in Latin or 'seacow' in Afrikaans.

Not too many of us, however, are familiar with the derivation of many of the African names of animals. Credo Mutwa explains some of these in his book "Isilwane - The animal", while several Tsonga idioms provide a rich interpretation of some familiar African names...

King of the Beasts

For example ingonyame, the Zulu word for lion means 'the master of all flesh'. This name consists of two words, ngo, meaning very high, and  nyama, which means 'flesh' or power.

Another Zulu term for lion is ibubesi, which comes from the verb bhubeza meaning 'to make the final decision', supporting the belief that the lion is king of the beasts. In Tsonga, 'ku va nghala', 'to be a lion' refers to being brave and 'ku lwa xinghala' translates 'to fight like a lion'.

The Noble Leopard

All African tribes regard the leopard as an animal that symbolizes all that is noble, courageous and honorable.  It is called ingwe by the Zulus and nkwe by the Basutos. These words originally meant 'pure sovereignty' or 'pure kingship'. In very ancient times, a king who supposedly ruled over other kings among the Botswana tribes was called nkwetona.

The Unstoppable One

African people regard the elephant with a very deep reverence. The Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for the elephant all mean 'the forceful one', 'the unstoppable one'.  In Zulu the name for an elephant is indlovu, from the verb  dlovu, which means to 'crash through', 'to pierce savagely'.

The Tswana and Sotho word for elephant, tlou, and the Tsonga word njovu also carry this meaning. Several Tsonga idioms provide food for thought: 'ku ba ndlopfu hi xibakele' translates to 'hit an elephant with a fist', i.e. 'to make a very slight impression'. 'Nkari wa mahlemba - ndlopfu' means 'the time of the elephants bath', ie 'the early hours before dawn'.

A Champion Fighter

Two idioms dealing with crocodiles: 'kuva ngwenya  emutini', to be a crocodile in the village, implies 'to be a champion fighter ', while 'ku tshama ni ngwenya emutini', translates as 'to live with a dangerous person in the village.'

The Uncontrollable One

The hippopotamus is regarded by African people as a symbol of rebellion, uncontrollability and unruliness. The Tswana name for hippo is kubu which means 'rebellion' or 'rebelliousness'. It also means 'sudden awakening' which in Setswana is kubuga. 

African people also believe that the hippo is an animal of confusion because it cannot make up its mind whether it is a rhinoceros or an elephant. The Zulu people call the hippo invubu.

This word has several meanings one of which has to do with mixing from the verb vuba which means 'to mix', 'to knit together ' or 'to combine'.  In this sense the word invubu means 'the mixed up creature' or the creature which is unable to make up its mind what it is!

To Outshine

The Bakgatla is a tribe that live in the North West Province and Botswana. At one time, the Bakgatlas were one of the most powerful Tswana-speaking tribes in Southern Africa.

They regard the monkey as a totem and call it kgathla or kgabu, which means; 'to dazzle', 'to outshine' or to 'impress very deeply '. The monkey is known as 'the impressive one' or 'the one who outshines all'. Kgabu comes from  the kgaba or kgabesa, which means to 'decorate richly '.

When Bakgatla people wish the king or chief a long and prosperous life, they use the following words: 'May it climb the tallest tree and eat the gum of long life, the monkey.'

Baboon in Zulu is called imfene. This word comes from the verb fana which means 'to resemble'. This implicitly means 'that which resembles a human being! 'Ku banana hi rhambu mfene' means in Tsonga 'to hit each other with a baboon's bone', i.e. 'to exchange gifts with relatives only'.

The Purifier

South African people know the hyena by its Zulu name, impisi , while some tribes in Zimbabwe call it sisi.  These words  literally mean 'the purifier ', 'the cleaner', 'the one who makes things orderly '. This name is indicative of the hyena's  tendency to tidy up the carcasses on which it feeds.

In Sestwana the hyena is called sephiri or  phiri. This means the 'animal of the secret' because the hyena moves in secret usually in darkness and silently.

The Shangaan people associate the hyena with evil and witchcraft. 'Ku va mhisi', in Tsonga means to be a hyena, i.e. a hard and fearless worker. 'Ku va ni matimaba ya mhisi,' i.e. 'to have the strength of a hyena', that is to be strong and evil.

The Humble One

The eland appears in hundreds of fables and legends. We are all familiar with eland figures being decorated in Bushman rock art. Zulu-speaking people call the eland impofu, which is a word with several meanings.  One is 'golden-skinned one'; another is 'poor one' or the 'humble one'.  In Zulu, to be poor is mpfou and a poor person is regarded as mpofana.  Poverty was equated with humility in ancient times.

The Bastawana and Sothos called the eland pofu, which means the same thing. Other antelope with symbolic names include the Sable which is called inkolongwane in Zulu which means 'the ululating'. 

In Sesotho it is called mugulukwane, and apparently in old Setswana and Sesotho gulukwane which means 'the one over whom people ululate.'

Ugly But Honoured

Despite its ugly appearance, African people hold the wildebeest in such reverence that the Zulu word for wildebeest: nkonkoni is used to denote a champion or leader in any field. 

The wisest and greatest traditional healer in any community is always called the 'inkonkoni'. The best football player in any township is always nicknamed 'nkonkoni' in tribute to his football skills.

The Feared One

The chameleon is feared and revered by many African people. The Zulu people call the chameleon inwabu, which means 'the one who moves very lazily'.

Another name, which people call the chameleon is libido, a strange term which has to do with decay: buhodu, 'the rotting one' or 'the one who causes decay'. In Tsonga, 'ku va ni mahiri ya lampfana', means to have the tricks of a chameleon ', ie to be a liar.

Several other idioms dealing with reptiles include ones dealing with tortoises and snakes: 'Ku dlokodla nyoka', 'to poke at a snake', i.e. to provoke a peaceful person. 'Ku dlokodla mfutsu' translates to 'to poke at a tortoise', that is to put someone on the alert.

'Ku siya hi mfutsu', 'to be outrun by a tortoise', to be exceedingly slow.  'Ku twa nyoka', to 'hear the snake', ie to feel hungry. 'Ku miyeta nyoka, 'to quiten the snake', that is to eat.

Always A Twist

As can be seen there is much more to an animal's name that normally meets the eye. The English, Afrikaans, Latin, Zulu, Tsonga, Sesotho and Setswana interpretation all tell their own story giving a truly First World versus Third World cosmopolitan mix of perceptions of some of South Africa's wildlife.

There is always a twist to these animals' tales! Searching for the origins of these names can be a creative and rewarding exercise. Remembering a few of these stories and idioms about some of these.

By Rael Loon

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