Hispanic Heritage Month - Our Animals

As much as 80% of the English we speak today is made up of cognates and loanwords.  

Spanish is the 6th most common language  for loanwords, taken not only from England's European neighbor Spain, but also where paths crossed in the New World. At its peak 1.5% of all new loanwords in the English language were borrowed from Spanish.  

Over time these foreign words changed phonologically, and sometimes in spelling, to match more common English pronunciations. Although these words might first require definition, eventually they became so common as to no longer need explanation. By then little remained to distinguish them from other English words.

This was certainly not just a New World phenomenon — gecko and penguin are loanwords from Malay and Welsh, respectively for example  — but as English speakers followed Spanish speakers into areas that now comprise the southern and western U.S. it makes perfect sense that the animals they encountered would carry Spanish names that would became English words.

Here are a few.

Spanish explorers likely stumbled across them when they first arrived in the New World in the early 16th century. While they may have been familiar with the Latin word crocodrillus, they would have had no reason to connect it to the the large reptiles living in the bayous and waterways they crossed. Instead these creatures were dubbed el lagarto, the lizard, eventually becoming the word alligator that we know today. 

© Sandy Nelson | #inthewildhood

Originally found from South America into the desert southwest of the U.S., these striking raptors no longer enjoy the continuous range they held prior to habitat loss. In Texas, reintroduction efforts have proved somewhat successful, with evidence of breeding along the southern coast. The Spanish word aplomado — lead-colored, plomo meaning lead — is generally accepted as a reference to their bluish-grey plumage.  However, an alternate translation could just as easily be the adjective poised or self-confident. This may be born out by descriptions of a New World bird introduced to European courts in the 16th century, praised as "high mettled," which some believe to have been the Aplomado Falcon.

Profiled earlier this summer in a Mammal Monday post, this little digger is our state mammal. A diminutive form of the Spanish word for armored (armaduro or armado), the armadillo was so named for the banded shell that covers its body.

© Jeffrey Newon | #inthewildhood

This isn't an animal so much as it's an attitude. A mainstay of rodeos across the western US, these horses are bred for the temperament to throw off their rider. The word bronco translates to rough and accurately describes the bucking they give to rodeo athletes.

A burro is a donkey, and a donkey is an ass. It's as simple as that. Well, almost. The domesticated donkey is descended from the African wild ass and has been a working animal for at least 5,000 years.  First arriving in Europe on the Iberian Peninsula via the Straits of Gibraltar, they can be found immortalized as pack animals in Spanish rock paintings dating to 2,000 BC. The word donkey appears in the written record in 1784, although by that time they'd already been in the Americas for nearly 300 years. Given their introduction by Spanish explorers and conquistadores it makes sense that they would carry with them the Spanish word for donkey — borrico — which in turn became the burro we use today. Burros are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West." Finally, a little recognition for these hard working equines. 
© Jana Laven | #inthewildhood

The most interesting thing about the commonly recognized Spanish word cucaracha is that it hasn't replaced the English word roach. La Cucaracha entered the lexicon not so much as the insect, but as the song that bears the name of that insect. It's been sung by artists as diverse as Judy Garland and the Kumbia Kings, and most children readily recognize it from Mel Blanc's versions in morning cartoons or, more recently, via The Wiggles. But oddly, the song itself isn't really about la cucaracha

©Apreechas2536 | Dreamstime

Immortalized in writing as early as 1819, its folk song lyrics have changed to meet the needs of the times. Most of the lyrics we know today date to the Mexican Revolution (1910 - 1920) and are rife with political allegory, satire and complaints of the peones. Texas was intrinsically linked to the Revolution — Tejano communities provided refuge to political exiles and support to revolutionary forces in Mexico. Border raids were common, eventually resulting in attempts at U.S. military intervention. And the Mexican Revolution resulted in later activism on this side of the border. The leaders of Tejano political movements in the mid-20th century were raised in the calls for increased education, end to discrimination, recognition of women's rights and pleas for fair labor intrinsic to the the Partido Liberal Mexicano. Not what you'd expect of a song named for the lowly cockroach.

If you were to jump into a loanword etymology time machine, assuming something like that existed, javelina would definitely be a word you'd want to track. This small, rooting animal is reminiscent of pigs, and can be found throughout Central and South America and into the desert southwest of the U.S. Our word javelina is derived from an older Spanish word jabalina, which is the feminine versions of jabalí. That translates to wild boar and comes from an Andalusian Arabic word, خِنْزِير جَبَلِيّ‎, which translates roughly to mountain pig. That in turn is based on, جَبَل , the Arabic word for mountain. Thus, javelina, is an Arabic loanword borrowed into Spanish, and a Spanish loanword borrowed into English — a trip that takes us back many centuries and, quite literally, to the other side of the world.

© wildeyesphotos | #inthewildhood

They are the bane of summer enjoyment, these stinging insects that take our blood and leave itchy skin behind. Mosquito literally means little fly, mosca being the Spanish word for fly. English isn't the only language that's borrowed the word. Portuguese, Estonian and Italian also use it.

© Kalletaavo | Dreamstime

Let's get this out of the way from the start — mustangs aren't wild horses. True wild hourses are native to Western and Central Asia. Wild equines originated in the New World but went extinct around 11,000 years ago. They weren't seen again on the American continents until 1519. The mustangs that we know now are technically feral animals, descended from that domesticated stock. The word mustang is a mesh of two Spanish words, mestengo and mostrenco. Both convey the idea of animals that have strayed or who are of uncertain ownership. Today the word has changed to mean untamed to fit the spirit of the animals that still roam the west. Like their smaller burro cousins, mustangs are protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

© Susan Pena | #inthewildhood

Texas isn't the only place that nutria now call home. Native to South America, their valuable fur led to introduction into waterways in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. And here's where it gets interesting. We don't know when the Spanish word nutria was applied to the large, semi-aquatic rodent. We aren't even sure why it was. Nutria actually translates to otter and it could be that early explorers didn't realize they weren't otters. In North America and Asia the Spanish name nutria remains. In most Spanish-speaking nations they are called coypu, coipú or coipo, variations on names used by indigenous people within their native range. Why THAT didn't end up as the English loanword is anyone's guess.

If you've ever wandered along the banks of a river or creek you've seen these tiny fish darting about. Gambusia are a truly New World fish, with 45 recognized species in Texas, Mexico, Colombia, throughout Central America, on certain Caribbean islands and in some southern U.S. states. Several species vulnerable or endangered, and both the Amistad and San Marcos gambusia are extinct.  Gambusia are curiously named. The Cuban gambusia is the type species and it is from Cuba that the name comes to us. Zoologist Felipe Poey wrote in 1851 that the word from which it is derived, gambusino, "...significa nada, con idea de chasco ó burla."  Basically the word signifies nothing, and is a joke that when fishing you catch nothing.  Curiously, the word gambusino has an actual definition of a place-miner or someone that pans for gold. This could be the source of the joke and thus the name of the fish, since panning for gold often also results in nothing.

There's a visceral thrill — maybe excitement, maybe fear — that you get when you're snorkeling and come face-to-face with a barracuda. It's a startling thing to see the silvery shine of the large body and, of course, those teeth!  Barracuda is definitively a Spanish loanword. We know if can be traced back to late 17th-century Latin American tradition.  We don't know precisely what it means or where it came from before that. It may be simply a native Cariban word describing the fish. It may be that it was brought to the America's from the Iberian peninsula as a Catalan word that implies snaggle-toothed. In either case it's again a loanword borrowed into Spanish, then borrowed again to English. 

© Genlady | Dreamstime

National Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the history, culture and contributions Hispanic Americans have made, and continue to make, to our country. Celebrated nationally since 1968, Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15, encompassing the independence anniversaries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico.

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


Mammal Monday — A Texas Lion


These mammals have a mysterious aura to them, mainly because of their solitary and secretive nature. Multiple sightings have been reported, but are those reports always true?

Mountain lions, also called cougars, pumas, panthers, painters and catamounts, are typically found in remote areas of the Trans-Pecos region. They are also found in the brushlands of South Texas and some parts of the Hill Country. Mountain lions have a wider distribution than any other wildcat, ranging from Canada to South America. They are large, tan cats.

Mountain lions are native to Texas, and historically, these lions have trekked Texas for thousands of years, proven by rock art and fossil records. They were once more widespread across Texas, but because of human activity, they have mostly retreated to isolated and rugged areas.

Even in areas with mountain lion populations, they are rarely seen in the wild. By paying close attention, people may be able to recognize if a mountain lion has been in the area by looking for a few tell-tale signs: their distinctive tracks (almost teardrop-shaped toes with no claws showing and a three-lobed heel pad), scrapes (produced by hind feet kicking backward along with urine-soaked debris), and scat (larger than a bobcat’s and often near the kill site). Mountain lion kill sites can often be identified by marks where the prey was dragged. They won’t always eat their whole kill and sometimes cover it with debris.

Despite the rarity of mountain lion sightings, reports occur in parts of Texas. However, many of the sightings aren’t actually mountain lions but large house cats, bobcats and sometimes tawny-colored deer. Mountain lions rarely interact with humans, and attacks are rare. Only four attacks on humans have been reported in Texas since 1980. Mountain lions tend to prefer white-tailed deer or mule deer as their main dietary items, and will also eat small mammals. Some mountain lions occasionally kill livestock, typically goats or sheep.

A common misconception when talking about mountain lions is the idea of the “black panther.” Nobody has ever captured or killed a black mountain lion in North America. In fact, “black panther” is actually a blanket term for any large cat with a melanated coat, usually a jaguar or leopard.

Though “black panthers” may not be real in Texas, the mystery of mountain lions still holds true.

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.