March 19, 2014

Giraffe Facts: What's In a Name


© Barbara V. Evers,  All Rights Reserved
Until 1487, western cultures believed the giraffe existed as a mythical creature much like the unicorn. What happened in 1487?  A giraffe arrived in Florence, Italy.  Considering the travel limitations of the time, most of Europe didn't see a giraffe until several centuries later, so scientists grappled with what to call the animal.  It's anatomy sounded implausible.  In fact, for many years, based only on verbal descriptions, many referred to it as a cameleopard.

A cameleopard?  Descriptions defied the imagination.  Think about it:  very tall,  long neck, two-five horns on its head, spots,  sloped back, and hooves.  They took these points about the anatomy and decided it had spots like a leopard and the sloping back and hooves of a camel.  Boy did they miss the boat on that one.  In fact, today, we know the giraffe isn't related to the camel or the leopard.  It shares family taxonomy with only one other animal, the okapi, a smallish animal living in rainforests that wasn't discovered until 1901.

In 1826, the viceroy of Egypt sent the gift of a living giraffe to Paris to enhance relations between the two countries.  This giraffe walked to Paris.  What a journey!  Many people came out to see the animal on its long trek and now western civilization had proof of this fantastical creature.

Then where did the name giraffe come from?  It's more closely related to the names given it in its native lands such as gyraffa and zirafa.  The French word is girafe and in Italian it is giraffa.  According to Lynn  Sherr in her book, Tall Blondes, her favorite name for the giraffe is twiga, from the Swahili language.


By any name, the giraffe is a remarkable creature.There remains much we don't know, but the facts still fascinate me.

What animal, living or imaginary, fascinates you?  Why?

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