giraffe
Posted: 05 June 2009 09:04 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I recently found out that this comes from Arabic zarafa meaning to hurry. Surely this is not the first thing you would notice about a giraffe. Wild ones would doubtless have fled Arabs when encountering them but even so.
What could the etymological process have been here regarding defining characteristics?
How common are unlikely names in etymology?

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Posted: 05 June 2009 01:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It comes from Arabic zirāfa, a dialectal form that is probably of African origin.  Nothing to do with hurrying.

How common are unlikely names in etymology?

This is a meaningless question.  What does “unlikely” mean?  It’s like asking how common bright stars are.  It all depends.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 06:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Damn! While poking through Old English dictionaries the other day I came across the Old English word for giraffe. It struck me as odd that Old English would have such a word--odd, but not implausible. (Probably found in biblical translations.) For the life of me I can’t remember what the word was.

I can’t do a full-text search of Bosworth-Toller. Toronto’s DOE A-G doesn’t turn anything up in the search, so the word must begin with a letter after G.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 10:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Could it be camelopard or camelion, a mythical composite creature? although the earliest OED citation of either is as late as 1382.  The Afrikaans word for giraffe, kameelperd, led me to this:

“The Egyptians used a hieroglyph in the shape of a giraffe to indicate ‘to prophecy’, ‘to foretell’, which has been taken as evidence of its keen eyesight. Ancient Arabic words include saraphah, gyrapha, gyraffa, and zirafa. The Persians called it ushturgao ("camel-cow"). To the Chaldeans it was deba, and ana, which may be related to nabun, used by Pliny. The encyclopedist Vincent de Beauvais, in his Speculum Naturale (1225), described it under three different names (anabulla, camelopardo, and orasius), apparently without realizing it. Albertus Magnus repeated the mistake in his thirteenth-century De Animalibus, using anabula, camelopardulus, and oraflus. Anabula probably comes from the Ethiopians, who called it nabin; and orafle was used in Old French. In Afrikaans it is called kameelperd. and in Zulu indlulamethi. But my personal favorite is the Swahili word twiga—which sounds the way a giraffe looks. [Tall Blondes, Lynn Sherr, p.19.]

The giraffe in heraldry is known as

Camelopardel: the camelopard, or giraffe, with two long horns slightly curved backward, used only as a crest.

More on heraldry:

The medieval name for an ordinary giraffe was camelopard. It was a widely believed at that time that animals sometimes crossbred. It is likely that a crusader saw a giraffe for the first time and believed it to be a cross between a camel and a leopard. It is believed that the camelopard represented characteristics of both “parents”, namely a valiant warrior that would patiently persevere to the end.

Edit:  I see that I have just posted 11 weeks 4 days 9 hours and 49 minutes ago.
Another edit: my edit was posted 1 minute ago.  I seem to be able to time travel.

[ Edited: 05 June 2009 10:50 PM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 06 June 2009 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Looks like I was wrong, though:

giraffe
Noun
a cud-chewing African mammal with a very long neck and long legs and a spotted yellowy skin [Arabic zarāfah]
Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006

not zirafa. Probably different Arabic spelling conventions in English.

To the Romans, the giraffe was camelopardalis (camel marked like a leopard). The word giraffe comes from the Arabic zarafa. As a verb it means to jump or to hurry, leading to the noun one who walks swiftly. It has also been traced to an Ethiopian word that denotes graceful one. But its primary derivation, in the opinion of linguistic authority, stems from a source meaning assemblage, as in assemblage of animals. The Greeks were more specific: they contributed its scientific name, camelopardalis (or the more common, camelopard), which literally describes a camel’s body wearing a leopard’s coat”. [Tall Blondes, Lynn Sherr, p.16.].

from http://www.constellationsofwords.com/Constellations/Camelopardalis.htm which Eliza found. (The hyperlink won’t work). Could be Arabic folk etymology?

wiki has:

The Arabic word الزرافة ziraafa or zurapha, meaning “assemblage” (of animals), or just “tall”, was used in English from the sixteenth century on, often in the Italianate form giraffa.

By “unlikely” etymologies I mean those which make little or no immediate sense, perhaps a category of my own devising as I can’t think of any examples except for the faux giraffe one!

Still, thanks for your interesting replies as always.

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Posted: 06 June 2009 02:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Pure speculation: could it be that the original zirafa/zarafa etc meant something along the lines of “large galloping animals” (and originally applied to many types of ungulate) and that the application got whittled down until it was only used for one species. A bit like the way “cattle” only really means “cows” these days.

*shrugs*

As for unlikely etymologies: try “pupil” as in the eye.

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pupil

Is that the kind of thing you mean?

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Posted: 07 June 2009 02:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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jointgib - 06 June 2009 02:15 PM

As for unlikely etymologies: try “pupil” as in the eye.

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pupil

Is that the kind of thing you mean?

Well, I would never have guessed the etymological connection between “pupil” (of the eye) and “puppy” without being told that.

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Posted: 13 September 2010 04:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Continuing the combined theme of giraffes and unlikeliness, I wonder — given the vast distance between the long-necked ruminants’ homeland and Japan, as well as the lack of any obvious connection between words — can anyone explain the origin of the Japanese word for giraffe, namely kirin.

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Posted: 13 September 2010 04:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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When giraffes were brought to China, they became identified with an already established Asian mythological creature that they resembled in some ways. Kirin is the Japanese version of the name of that creature.  See the Wikipedia article on Qilin.

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Posted: 14 September 2010 02:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Brilliant! Thanks, Doc.

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Posted: 15 September 2010 02:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Full search on Bosworth-Toller can be done at

http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/asearch

This gives results for “hippopotamus” & “rhinoceros”, but nothing for “giraffe”.

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