An Avian Runner

March, 2017 Word Stories

After beginning in Southern Africa, we now cross the Atlantic for our next selection of Word Stories. Such a journey would prove impossible for the subject of this instalment: a flightless bird known as the rhea or nandu. Both names refer to members of the same South American genus, and while one is clearly linked to this creature’s activities down on the ground, the explanation behind the other is somewhat up in the air.


Nandu is the common name used to designate the rheas, a genus belonging to a group of large flightless birds living in South America. It has cognates in several languages: Portuguese nandu or nhandu (with initial nh- pronounced as [ɲ]: “nyandoo”), Spanish ñandú, French nandou, Italian nandù, German Nandu, Dutch nandoe, Swahili nandu, etc. It comes from Tupi-Guarani and is properly transcribed in that language as either nhandunandú or ñandú, and decomposable as nha- “to run” + -⁠du, agent suffix.

Nandu is first found in Georges Cuvier’s Animal Kingdom, as translated and augmented (1827–1835) by the British naturalist Edward Griffith. The latter writes: “The Nandu has been sometimes called the ostrich of Magellan”, correctly adding, however, that “the presence of three toes may constitute a character sufficient to form it into a separate genus”. (Ostriches are two-toed ratites.)


The rheas are ratites (group of large flightless birds), occupying the South American ecological niche otherwise taken by the ostriches in Africa and the emus in Australia.

The English name rhea was taken from the scientific Latin name of their genus, Rhea, chosen by German naturalist Paul Möhring in his 1752 taxonomical work Avium genera (Sorts of birds). The genus name was itself taken from the Latinized form of the Greek female Titan Ῥέα (Rhéa), daughter of the sky god Uranus and of the earth goddess Gaia, sister and consort of Cronus, and mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hestia and Hera. The justification for Möhring’s naming choice is unrecorded. The Greek name Rhea being possibly derived from the common noun era (έρα), meaning “ground”, it has been suggested that the birds were thus named by Möhring for the fact that, being entirely flightless, they could be referred to as “ground birds”. The femininity of the goddess Rhea could also have played a role.

In English zoological literature, the bird’s name is attested at the end of the 1700s, first under its capitalized genus name (in William Fordyce Mavor’s 1787 New Dictionary of Natural History), then as a common noun, uncapitalized and unitalicized (for instance, in the third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, under “Struthio”).