The name of the giant constrictor snake of South America is most likely from the Sinhalese henakaňdayā, a Sri Lankan name for a whip snake (from hena = lightning + kaňda = stem). How the name shifted from a snake in South Asia to one in South America is the story of a series of errors and misappellations.
The name anaconda can be applied to any snake in the genus Eunectes, although it is most often applied to the species Eunectes murinus, the green anaconda, which is the largest living snake (by weight; reticulated pythons can grow longer).
The earliest appearance of the word in the West was in John Ray’s 1693 Synopsis Methodica Animalium Quadrupedum et Serpentini Generis (A Methodical Synopsis of the Variety of Four-Footed Animals and Serpents). Ray relies on an earlier description of a giant Asian snake (probably a reticulated python) by Andreas Cleyer (1634–c.1698), a German physician, merchant, and naturalist who traveled throughout Asia:
Serpens Indicus Bubalinus, Anacandaia Zeylonensibus, id est Bubalorum aliorumque jumentorum membra conterens.
(Indian Bubalinus Snake, Anacandaia zeylonensibus, that is crushing the limbs of buffalo and other beasts of burden).
Note that Ray Latinizes the Sinhalese henakaňdayā to anacandaia, and in so doing makes the first in the series of misnomers, mistaking the python for a whip snake. The Latin form of the name appears in various scientific publications following Ray’s use of it, such as this description by Charles Owen. Owen translates the fuller Latin description that Ray gives (and which is originally from Cleyer):
The Anacandia, a Ceylonick Serpent of monstrous Corpulence, being in longitude about 25 Foot. D. Cleyerus, who accounts for this gigantick Serpent, says, he saw one of them open’d, in whose Belly was found a whole Stag, with all his integral Parts: In another they found a wild Goat; and in a third, a Porcupine arm’d with all its Darts and Prickles. Serpents of this nature have often fallen in our way, by which we may imagine, that there is a vast spread of them over the Earth. Mr. Ray from Cleyrus gives this account of the Monster——Tho’ the Throat seems narrow, yet ‘tis very extensible, and the Facts have been confirm’d by Experience. When the Prey is catch’d he wraps himself about it, takes it by the Nose, sucks the Blood, and soon reduces it to a Hodge-Podge; after he has broken the Bones in pieces, that emits a Sound like a Gun, ibid. And in doing all this he spends two days.
The Anglicized anaconda first appears in a letter to The Scots Magazine by one R. Edwin in 1768. Edwin writes:
The Ceylonese seemed to know the creature well; they call it ANACONDA, and talked of eating its flesh when they caught it, as they had no small hopes of this; for, they say, when one of these creatures chuses a tree for its dwelling, he seldom quits it for a long time.
The description in Edwin’s letter is rather lurid:
In a moment we heard a dreadful rustling in the tree, and, swift as thought, the serpent dropt upon [the tiger], seizing him across the back, a little below the shoulders, with his horrible mouth, and taking in a piece of the back bigger than a man’s head. The creature roared with agony, and, to our unspeakable terror, was running with his enemy towards us. His course, however, was soon stopped; for the nimble adversary winding his body three or four times around the body of his prey, girt him so violently, that he fell down in agony. The moment the serpent had fixed his folds, he let go the back of the creature, and raising and twining around his head, opened his horrid mouth to its full extent, and seized the whole face of the tyger in it, biting and grinding him in a most horrid manner, and at once choking him and tearing him to pieces. [...] This took up many hours, and the poor creature all this while was living, and, at every loud crack of the bones, gave a howl, tho’ not loud, yet piteous enough to pierce the cruelest heart.
The problem with this description, however, is that there are no, nor have their ever been, tigers in Sri Lanka. And constrictors swallow their prey whole; they do not tear it to pieces. The entire letter is made up, based on the descriptions by Ray and others.
But despite (or perhaps because of) its fictional nature, the story and the name anaconda caught on. The 1796 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry for anaconda based on Edwin’s letter. (Wikipedia is not the first such reference to have run afoul of bad sources.) The myth of such snakes eating tigers is often repeated in later descriptions. (Another myth that is oft repeated is that they also eat elephants. Reticulated pythons have been known to kill small elephants, but they can’t open their jaws wide enough to actually eat one.)
The name was first applied to the South American snake by French naturalist Francois-Marie Daudin in 1803, writing about the le boa anacondo in the fifth volume of his Histoire Naturelle. By 1838, the name anaconda was being applied in English-language descriptions of the South American snake. Daudin apparently was confused by the name. He may have thought anaconda was a generic name for any giant snake. It’s also possible that Daudin confused the samples of Asian “anacondas” in the Leiden Museum for the South American species. That museum also included some of collections of the naturalist Francois Le Valliant, who also had specimens of the South American snake in collections housed elsewhere. Daudin had access to Valliant’s catalogue and writings, and may have thought the specimens he saw in Leiden were the ones Valliant had brought back from South America.
Regardless of how the error happened, over time the name anaconda became increasingly associated with the South American species and slowly ceased to be used for the Asian snakes.
American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, s. v. anaconda.
Edwin, R., “Description of the Anaconda,” The Scots Magazine, Appendix, 1768, 673–76.
Merriam-Webster.com, s. v. anaconda, accessed 24 April 2016.
Murphy, John C. “Origin of the Name Anaconda,” Giantconstrictingsnakes.com, accessed 24 April 2016.
Owen, Charles, An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents, London, 1742.
Oxforddictionaries.com, s. v. anaconda, accessed 24 April 2016.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989, s. v. anaconda, n.
Yule, Henry and A. C. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India (1886), Kate Teltscher, ed., Oxford University Press, 2013, s. v. anaconda, 62–64.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton