Calling all Earthlings

We missed kangaroos.

As a sentence considered out of context, not highly communicative. As an email subject line after a weekend discussion, completely clear. Yes, we had, indeed, missed kangaroos. Or joeys, more to the point.

It had all started, as many things do, I find, with an interaction with conflicting goals. I think back to the initial discussion.

The 5-year-old beside me wants validation for a printing exercise: three sentences about owlets, piglets, and ducklings. Well, OK. I can do that, and do. Done and done, at least by my standards. Moveondotorg.

Because what I want is to talk about baby-animal names.  I hadn’t thought about them before, but here we are now. I wonder if owlet started life as owl-let. At least that would be consistent with pig-let. But what about those pesky ducks?

And so I wonder aloud.

If it’s owlets and piglets, why isn’t it ducklets?

Much-younger eyes roll.

But if it’s ducklings, why isn’t it piglings?

An uncomfortable pause. Then the intervening generation weighs in.

What about doglings?

Coming from a better-known source, this at least provokes a giggle.

And we’re off, exploring the apparent arbitrariness of baby-animal names in English. Beyond the inexplicable lack of doglings, we also have no catlings, goatlings, or sheeplings.  This is interesting. More, it’s intriguing: How absurd those made-up names sound.

Even within the birds, apparently what’s good enough for ducks and geese is just silly for the rest of them. Robinling? Craneling? Clearly not.

Great blue heron adult with baby, standing in nest

Birdling in nest.

Who knew?

Well, the answer to that question might be waiting at my next stop, where I stay in the same house with someone who learned English in a more organized way than I did.

How did you learn baby-animal names in English?

Although I’m no longer surprised that second-language speakers know things about English that I don’t  — at least things I don’t know that I know — I’m often surprised at exactly what those things are. The necessary order of multiple adjectives, for example. The words that “carry the future” with them — like until and when — making it not just unnecessary but wrong to use a future tense after them. (Go ahead, try it for yourself. I’ll wait.) And so on, meaning I can’t think of any more examples but am sure I’ve tripped over them.

Anyway, it turns out that second-language learners have no special insight into the apparent mess of baby-animal names.

When I check with Google, I see why: It really is a mess. I mean, characterized by such lovely diversity. But after perusing for a while, I realize that although there is a painful lack of standardization in how the names are formed, there are some patterns in how they’re used.

There are the names that seem to apply to just one animal. Fawn. Foal. Colt. Filly.  Tadpole, polliwog, froglet.  Cygnet.  Bunny. Eaglet, eyas. Cria, a baby llama. Shoat, farrow. Kid. Pullet. Cockrell.  Squab. Porcupette, and isn’t that just the cutest? Fry. Maggot. (This is where I realize that I don’t think of maggots as babies, and hope I don’t know anyone who does.)

There’s one name that seems to be for just two animals: puggle, for the platypus and spiny anteater. Now that’s weird. Almost as weird as the animals in question.

There are the names that are used many times. Kit. Pup. Whelp. Chick. Larva. Nymph. Cheeper. Infant. Poult. Spat, for baby oysters and other baby bivalves. Calf (For animals ranging from aardvarks to rhinos. Who knew?). And, of course, the ubiquitous cub.

Cubs and cubs and cubs, oh my.
The Wizard of Oz, sort of

And, finally, there are a few more -ling names. Hatchling (birds, alligators, dinosaurs), fledgling, and fingerling are all multi-taskers. Codling, yearling, antling, snakeling, and spiderling are all single-use names.

We missed kangaroos.

Well, we did, just for a minute or two. And it turns out those almost-missed joeys refer not just to kangaroo babies but also to (o)possum and koala babies.

Who knew?


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6 Responses to Calling all Earthlings

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Lovely. And insightful.
    Jim T

  2. John Whitman says:

    And while you are delving into the naming convention for young animals and bivalves, maybe you can also give some thought to words taken from another language and used commonly in English without translation. For example: Rideau Hall translates to Curtain Hall and Helmut Kohl (a former West German Chancellor) translates as Helmut Cabbage in English.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – LOL. Yeah, I don’t know why some words get translated and some not. Maybe names are left alone, or at least names that are easy for English speakers. Apparently the indigenous name for Rideau Falls, for example, was Pasapkedjinawong.

  3. Ted Spencer says:

    One of our new friends, fresh from Congo via Burundi, and as mystified by The Queen’s English as any of us, endured my lengthy explanation, after showing off my 12 cords of firewood for the 2018/2019 season, of why I would cut a tree down, then cut it up. Why, indeed?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ted S – For goodness sake, don’t introduce him to the “parking in a driveway and driving on a parkway” issue. He’ll give up entirely. As for “cutting down and cutting up”, those pesky prepositions are highly idiomatic. In (sort of) learning Spanish, I found that their translations worked the same as in English in some cases, but not all. “What lovely diversity,” I thought.

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