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Animal Talk: Animal-related adjectives in the English language

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The origin and use of animal adjectives in English language

Image courtesy of Kapa65

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the origins and use of animal-related adjectives in English.

The names of animals are probably among the first things learnt by a student of a language, yet knowing the names of animals doesn’t always help when it comes to their associated adjectives—in fact, sometimes it can be downright confusing.

Most of the formal adjectives that relate to animals are not derived from the common English names but are taken instead from the Latin name of each animal. So when you are talking about things to do with dogs, you use the adjective canine (from the Latin word canis) and when you are talking about things to do with horses, you use the adjective equine (from the Latin word equus). There is one of these Latin-derived adjectives for just about every animal you can think of, and some of them can be quite obscure even to native speakers. (Not many dictionaries bother to record ‘murine’, which is the Latin-inspired adjective that refers to mice, or ‘vespertilionine’, which refers to bats.)

In a few cases the Latin name of an animal is similar to the common English name, and so it is easy to guess the meaning of adjectives such as elephantine. In most cases, however, there is not an obvious connection between the Latin-derived adjective and the English noun.

Yet the common names of animals also give rise to adjectives: ‘horsey’, ‘doggy’, ‘catty’, ‘fishy’, and ‘ratty’ are perfectly respectable—if somewhat informal—English words. A few of these can be used to refer to the animals themselves, so you can talk about ‘a doggy smell’. On the whole, however, they are more likely to be applied to people or things that exhibit qualities associated with animals.

In fact, it is possible to identify two distinct groups of adjectives that are formed from the common names of animals. Adjectives formed by adding the combining form -like to the name of an animal are usually neutral or even positive in tone (depending on the typical associations of the animal involved). Someone who moves in a stealthy manner might be called ‘catlike’, while a gentle person might be ‘lamb-like’. A more negative example is the use of ‘ostrich-like’ for people who ignore what is going on about them (a term that comes from the ostrich’s proverbial habit of burying its head in the sand).

On the other hand, adjectives formed by adding the suffixes -y or -ish to the names of animals are predominantly negative: someone who is catty tends to say unkind and spiteful things about other people; someone who is sheepish is embarrassed because they have done something wrong; someone who is sluggish moves slowly and lazily; spidery handwriting has long, thin strokes that appear unattractive; someone who is waspish is aggressive and bad-tempered.

So if you come across an adjective that looks as though it is derived from the name of an animal, the first thing to be aware of is that these words usually don’t refer to the animals themselves: people might be sheepish, but sheep are not. It is also worth noting that when these words are used to describe people, the comparison is often not a complimentary one.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

4 thoughts on “Animal Talk: Animal-related adjectives in the English language

  1. Thanks Ian. Vocabulary is something our learners really enjoy learning.
    …… and readers of the ELTGB might like these words used in the stock market such as “bullish” and “bearish” or the rarer “stagish”.
    “Bullish” refers to a rising market, or one in which investors think the market is going to rise. “Bearish” is the opposite and one which investors think the prices will fall. A “stag” is an investor who is looking for profits from the quick buying and selling of stocks and a much riskier activity.
    There’s also “mousey” referring to the hair colour (pale brown/grey-brown) or even a personality (shy or timorous). Who can forget the word used in the lyrics of “Life on Mars” by David Bowie (but I’m not sure whether he used the “mousey” or “mousy” spelling).
    And then there are also the much less polite “bovine” (a sluggish or stupid person) and even nastier “bitchy”. The word “bitch” seems to be creeping in to everyday use to simply mean “girl” or “woman”, something I personally find rather obnoxious, but language develops as it will and I don’t suppose we can have a vocabulary policeman lurking around.

  2. Those adjectives may not be common in formal written discourse, but they are easily understandable. I remember a pub conversation with a really vivid description of a man (by a woman) which included the word ‘beefy.’ Someone was concerned about me (a non-native speaker of English) not understanding the word. I had no problems of course, and they soon realised that the meaning of those adjectives can be inferred easily once you know the names of the animals. Anyway, I really enjoyed that description; I think it was one of the best description I’ve ever heard in a conversation.

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