Donkey – Who hasn’t heard of Mary riding into Bethlehem on a donkey? Well, before the late 1700’s, no one had. This word entered our language as slang (ironic since it replaced the word ass, which has come to have quite the list of its own slang definitions since). Donkey is perhaps a diminutive (smaller or junior version) term for a dun, a small horse. The word dun is an old color word meaning “dull grey-brown”.
Ass – Is one of the few words classified as cussing, swearing, profane, or generally “bad” that I will speak, as it is found in the Old King James Bible, and also in “What Child is This?” Etymologists seem to agree that this name for the animal comes from the Middle East. Whether the name comes from the word meaning “strong” and a sense of stubbornness or docile patience, or if that word derived from the beast’s behavior, I can’t tell, but they do seem to be related.
Oxen – Beside the ass in “What Child Is This?” we find an ox kneeling at the Lord’s manger. Our language’s history is replete with plurals formed by adding –en, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this is the only true continuous survival of such a plural into Modern English. As best I can tell, the early origins of this animal name refer to the male, and mean “to sprinkle”, referring to their fertility. In some religions, the gods of fertile fields are pictured as bulls or oxen, for this reason. I think the Proto-Indo-European root, *uks-en-, and the Sanskrit attestation, uksa, sound like yak, but no one else has seemed to notice, except the Edenics researchers, who cite Sanskrit gayal; Hebrew ‘agol, “calf”, from a sense of “round” or “going around”; and Hebrew aqqow, translated “wild goat” in KJV, and from a root meaning “to groan” – which I will note is indicative of hard work, which oxen and yaks are more wont to do than goats.
Sheep – The animals actually appearing in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are sheep. While Scandinavian languages use a word like faar for “sheep”, and Gothic languages use relatives of lamb, and other Indo-European words are similar to ewe, our word sheep has been in the Germanic family for a while. Wiktionary hints that sheep may be from the same root as shave – referring to the importance of the animal’s sheered wool? We use the same word for one sheep or many, but in Old Northumbrian, the plural is scipo.
Lamb – After consulting multiple etymology dictionaries, and none of them having any insight into the sense of the word lamb, I checked the Edenics sites. Edenics is somewhat appealing to me in that it credits meaning to sound and spelling, and does a good job compiling words with similar spellings and intriguing analogies in meanings. They don’t do such a good job tracing transitional words through history in literature, leaving them in a different category from traditional etymologists. So. Lekhem is, in Hebrew, “bread, food, flesh” – possibly from a root meaning “to make war”. It may be a stretch, but by Ezra’s time, Aramaic had ‘immar for “lamb”, the root maybe indicating “something that is called or brought forth, progeny”. Because L’s and R’s can shift in pronunciations, it is even possible that this and the Hebrew word for wool, tsemer (think Merino) could be related to lamb: swap out the R for the L and reverse the order. Arabic lahm means “meat”. Dutch lichaam is “body”. Finnish has a word for an animal (a sheep?), lammas. Is this the source of llama, or is it related to our next Christmas animal, the camel?
Camel – Traditionally, three wise men arrive in the Christmas story with their caravan of camels bearing gifts to the star-heralded King. Camel comes from Hebrew gamal (which is even the name of one of their letters), and might be related to Arabic jamala, “to bear”. Some Edenics writers think that llamas, as the primary beast of burden in South America, may trace their name from a similar source.
Besides the animals appearing in the Christian story of the Incarnation, our traditions have come to include several other animals in the seasonal festivities.
Reindeer – In some languages, rein or its equivalents stand alone as the word for this animal. It seems to have to do with the impressive growth of horns on their heads. The suggested root is PIE base *ker- which would associate it with the Greek for ram, krios.
Deer – Before the 1400’s, this word just meant “animal”, a word distinguishing creatures from humans, usually applied only to wild animals. Its origins are from words that have to do with breathing, thus separating this class of creation out from life which has no breath (a rather biblical concept). This same thought-pattern is said to have given us the word animal from Latin animus (“breath”).
Polar bear – Pole is from Latin polus, Greek polos, “pivot, axis of a sphere”. Some say it is from a root meaning “turn round” and having to do with concepts of turning, rolling, and wheels. An etymology I find less likely suggests a root meaning “stake”, “to nail or fasten”.
Bear is one of the most interesting etymologies. Most etymologists say that it is named for the color brown, which makes it kind of funny that we apply it to so many similar creatures – by class like polar bears, or appearance like koalas and pandas – that have different colors! Beaver is also said to derive its name from the same color root, *bher-. And a Greek cognate, phrynos, meaning “brown animal”, applies to toads!
An alternative etymology for bear is one that relates it to words meaning “wild”, like Latin ferus. The Proto-Indo-European root would then be *ǵʰwer-. If you follow Edenics, you might be interested in their similar etymology of bear (and boar) to roots B-R, F-R, and P-R all associated with wilderness and lawlessness – the outskirts of civilization.
Bears are classically associated with the poles (which are also on the outskirts of civilization, unless you heed the rumors about an elvish toy workshop), especially the north, because of the constellation Ursa Major. Ursa is from the Latin for bear. The Greek for bear is arktos, from whence we get our word arctic.
Boar – There is a carol introduced to me by Archibald Asparagus from Veggie Tales, called “The Boar’s Head Carol”. Apparently it is also on Josh Garrels’ new Christmas album. It’s the only reason I know to connect boars with Christmas, and it is probably more accurately derived from Yule traditions, but I can’t have mere boring things like sheep and donkeys in my list! The origin of this word is unclear, probably because, like most animal names, for a very long time it has just referred to the creature we know by this name. All sorts of Germanic peoples have basically called it the same thing. One not-well established hypothesis associates this word with Lithuanian baĩsas , “terrible apparition” and Old Church Slavonic běsŭ, “demon”. As I mentioned above, it might actually come from a word meaning “wild”. Demons are also rebels, exiles from the holy forces of God, and capable of appearing as “terrible apparitions”. Boars, apart from any spiritual creepiness, are pretty terrifying themselves. I think of the kid from Old Yeller hiding in a tree while ravenous wild pigs bite at his leg.
Goose – In the old days, goose was a favorite Christmas entrée. Before goose, it was gos, like gosling, and before that it was gans, like gander. The theory is that gans and similar words for geese and swans in other languages are imitative of the honking these birds make.
Puppy – Finally, puppies have begun to appear under Christmas trees with big red bows around their necks, calculated to bless the hearts of small children. The word came into our language in the late 15th Century, applied to a woman’s small pet dog, instead of the larger and fiercer breeds kept by men for shepherding or hunting. In the Middle French, whence we get the word, it was a toy or a doll, sharing its ancestry with puppet. Original root words had to do with children and smallness.
The Online Etymology Dictionary
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn