Wild Baby Names: Names with secret animal meanings

September 15, 2016 John Kelly

By John Kelly

The name Fox has cracked into the UK’s 1000 most popular names, while Kate Winslet and Alicia Silverstone are both raising children named Bear. But if you’re not quite up for naming your baby directly after an animal, consider the many names that have some majestic and inspiring animals hiding in their origins.

A Pack of Canines

The X-FilesFox Mulder sounds snappier than Todd Mulder, doesn’t it? And yet, the name Todd actually does mean “fox.” Todd began as a nickname, of obscure origin, in northern England dialect.

Caleb, 2015’s 37th most popular boy name, might literally mean “dog,” from the Hebrew keleb, with a sense of “devotion.”

Wolves lurk in many big, bad Germanic names, which NormanFrench conquerors brought to England. Like Rudolph. We may associate it with reindeer, but the name actually means “fame-wolf.” Rudolph derives from the Old High German Hrodulf, with combined meanings, “fame” or “glory,” and wolf. Rudolf, Rolf, Rudy, and Raul are variants.

Randal, Randy, Randalf, and Randolph also form a “wolf” pack of names, all from the Old Norse, Rannulfr: “shield wolf.” At root is rand, “shield,” carried by Senator Rand Paul. Some suppose, though, that the first component of these names is actually hrafn, another animal word: “raven.”

Rudolph and Randolph may sound old-fashioned to today, but if you really want a name that really travels back to an epic, Game-of-Thrones-y past, try Beowulf, the hero who graces the title of this foundational work of Old English literature. Beowulf means “bee wolf,” a metaphor for “bear.”

The Big Bears

Speaking of bears, let’s bring some bear names out of hibernation:

Orson, famously borne by director Orson Welles, comes from the French Ourson, a diminutive of ours, “bear.” The French ours developed from Latin’s ursus, also featured in Ursula, “little bear.” Saint Ursula made this name popular historically, though the Little Mermaid villain has since given it a more wicked connotation.

Latin’s ursus has many kin in languages across Europe, including the Welsh arth, “bear.” Legend has it the name Arthur, via Medieval Latin Arturus, is pulled from the etymological rock of Welsh arth. The name Art is a form of Arthur, famed name of kings and cartoon aardvarks.

This election cycle, Bernie Sanders lived up to his full first name: Bernard, “bold (as a) bear.” Like Rudolph, Bernard is Germanic in origin, blending the Old High German for “bear” (bero) and “bold” (harti, also meaning “strong” and related to English’s hard.) Bernadette is the female counterpart.

Haven’t found that just-right bear name? Well, Humbert is Germanic for “bright bear,” Osborne Old English for “divine bear,” and Bjorn a Scandinavian byname for “bear.”

Lions and Lions and Lions, Oh My!

What do Lionel Richie and Leonard from The Big Bang Theory have in common? They are kings of the jungle, at least as far as their names are concerned. Lionel is French for “young lion” while Leonard is from Germanic words meaning “strong (as a) lion.” In Leonard, the -ard comes from the same root as the -ard we saw in Bernard. Lenny, Leo, Leon, and Leonardo also sport the lion mane, as do some Hebrew names: Ariel means “lion of God,” while Arye is simply “lion.”

Where the Deer and Antelope Roam

 Tabitha leaps all the way back to Aramaic: Tabhyetha, a special form of the word for gazelle. Its pet name, Tabby, is now often associated not with antelopes but with cats.

Darby, enjoying some renewed popularity as a first name, is likely altered from Derby, an English place name that ultimately lends its name to the Kentucky horserace. Derby may trace back to the Old English Deorby, literally “deer town.”

Hartley is another deer name that’s jumped from surname to first name: It means “stag meadow.” In it, you can spot hart (“stag”) and a form of the same Old English word that gives us lea (“meadow”).

Other languages grace the flock of deer names. Devin is from a Gaelic last name meaning “fawn.” The Hebrew Ophrah, possibly the source of Oprah, also means “fawn.” And Herschel is Yiddish for “deer.”

Names of a Feather

Raven and Dove clearly show their etymological feathers, but consider Ari, Arnold, Gavin, and Jonah. Ari is from the Old Norse for “eagle.” Arnold, or Arenwald in Old High German, means “strength (of an) eagle.” The roots are: arn, “eagle,” related to Ari, and wald, “power.” Gavin develops from Gawain, a name, best we know, that doesn’t mean “Green Knight” but “white hawk” in Old Welsh. Jonah, and its variant, Jonas, are “dove” in Hebrew, in spite of any whale they bring to mind.

And finally we have Drake. The origin of this name, made a hit by the rapper, isn’t to be confused with “male duck” but a very different kind of flying creature: “dragon,” from the Latin draco.

John Kelly is an educator, writer, and word nerd living in Dublin, Ireland with his wife, Amanda, and dog, Hugo. He writes about language-related topics for Slate, Mental Floss, and Oxford Dictionaries. At Mashed Radish, he blogs about word origins and Shakespeare at Shakespeare Confidential.