Weird Stories

July, 2017 Word Stories

We pursue our exploration of the animal kingdom in the following Word Stories. Among the weird creatures inhabiting the earth, some enjoy more fame than others. Lexical good fortune has given the long-snouted aardvark a premium spot in most English-language dictionaries, while it has also starred in a number of popular TV series, including the Ant and the Aardvark (1969–1971). The kiwi, a flightless bird, gained celebrity status with its selection as the national symbol of New Zealand, subsequently developing its brand by lending its name to several other uses.


The animal’s common name in English represents a late eighteenth-century borrowing of the obsolete Afrikaans word aardvark, literally “earth-pig”, from Dutch nouns aarde “earth” and varken “pig”. In modern Afrikaans, the animal is called an erdvark. The origin of the name is explained, firstly, by the aardvark’s eating and burrowing habits, and, secondly, by its size, skin texture and reliance on smell, which South African settlers associated with the shape and behaviour of domestic pigs.

An early attestation of aardvark in an English text shows a confusion with a somewhat similar, also insectivorous, yet distantly related, mammal: the pangolin. A 1785 translation of Anders Sparrman’s travelogue A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and round the world […] identifies “the aard-varken, or earth-pig, which, probably, is a species of manis [i.e. of pangolin]”—which, as nineteenth-century taxonomy would confirm, it is not.

Aardvark also enjoys a certain celebrity in the English language and in lexicography as one of the very first noun entries in most English dictionaries. The word usually appears directly after the noun A (letter, musical note, blood group, grading mark, etc.) and, more rarely, after the specialized aa, a type of flow lava (from Hawaiian ʻaʻā “to burn”).


The word kiwi has three main senses in contemporary English:

  1. a fruit
  2. a bird
  3. a New Zealander (with the capital: Kiwi)

Etymologically, sense 1 (1960s) is derived from sense 3 (1910s), which is itself derived from sense 2 (1830s). The flightless bird whose genus name is Apteryx was called a kiwi in the language of the Maori. This is probably an onomatopoeic rendering of the bird’s cry (the reduplicated form kiwi-kiwi is also attested). Less plausibly, it could be an old Polynesian name for another bird, the bristle-thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), which spends its winters on Pacific tropical islands north of New Zealand. The distinctive kiwi bird seems to have rapidly become a symbol of the local environment among early settlers.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the name of the bird was given as a nickname to the soldiers of the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and eventually to all New Zealanders.

The kiwifruit (genus Actinidia), on the other hand, was exported in the early 1900s from its native central eastern China by New Zealand growers. It was at first, and still sometimes is, known as the “Chinese gooseberry”. As the commercialization and export of the fruit became global, it was renamed to “kiwifruit” or “kiwi” to seemingly indicate a New Zealand origin to international buyers. By the 1970s, helped by Californian and British Columbian fruit importers who also used this name, “kiwis” were well-known, although slightly exotic, fruits sold in most North American supermarkets.

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