Stories of Different Stripes

January, 2017 Word Stories

Every word has its story: its unique pathway into the English language. Some are longer and more intricate than others, while some follow a surprising route. The first instalment of this series looks at zebra and quagga, two words describing closely related animals. Like the creatures themselves, neither word is native to the English-speaking world. However, the commonality of their genetics does not extend to the names we give them, one of which originated far from the plains of southern Africa…


_Zebra_ makes its official entry in written English in a 1600 translation by John Pory of _A Geographical Historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian_ by Moorish author and diplomat Ioannes Leo Africanus (Arabic name: al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi). The text’s introduction, originally in Italian, provides the following description: “The Zebra or Zabra of this countrey [i.e. Congo] being about the bignes of a mule, is a beast of incomparable swiftnes.” The direct origin of the English _zebra_ is therefore Italian (_zebra_), although contemporary Romance equivalents may have also played a role. Spanish used _zebra_ and _zebro_ starting in the sixteenth century (the modern Spanish equivalent is _cebra_). Portuguese (the source of the Italian _zebra_?) used _zebro_ among other forms, which originally referred to a partially striped wild donkey, probably the extinct _Equus hydruntinus_. When Portuguese navigators arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in the late fifteenth century, they encountered herds of equines, probably quaggas, also partially striped. As they looked very similar to the Portuguese “zebros”, they naturally called them by the same name.

A more distant etymology for zebra is difficult to ascertain. Two main hypotheses have historically been put forth. One theory, now discredited, involved an unknown etymon from an African language, either a Niger–Congo language spoken in the Congo Basin or an Ethiopian language like Amharic. The second option, significantly more plausible, suggests a heavily modified Classical Latin etymon. In this scenario, the Portuguese word ezebro represents the final stage in a series of alterations in spelling and pronunciation of the Latin word equiferus, meaning a wild horse (as zebras could naively be considered to be), via the hypothetical popular Latin form *eciferus. The initial Latin form represents a fusion of equus “horse” and ferus “wild”. Positive evidence is lacking to support this theory, but it must nonetheless be preferred over the suggestion of a sub-Saharan origin. Indeed, given that the Portuguese word is attested since the Middle Ages, zebra could not originate—at least directly—from a region that maintained no relationship with Europe at that time. Furthermore, none of the numerous names for zebras in African languages can be linked with confidence to the English, Portuguese, Spanish or Italian words.


The quagga designates the partially striped subspecies of plains zebra (_Equus quagga quagga_) that went extinct in the nineteenth century. The quagga makes an appearance in what is perhaps zoology’s most famous monograph, Charles Robert Darwin’s _On the Origin of Species_. The work provides a brief physical description of the animal, distinguishing it from the zebra.
The word _quagga_ is ultimately from a southern African language called Khoekhoe, formerly called Hottentot. The first attestation of the word _quagga_ in English is found in the translation (1731) of _The present state of the Cape of Good Hope_ written by Peter Kolbe, a German travel writer. The tilde sign over the _u_ of the first spelling, _qũaiha_, attempted to represent a lateral click typical of that language. The modern symbol for that sound would consist in two vertical bars: “ǁ”.
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