hippopotamus, n.

hippopotamus, n. one of the largest existing African quadrupeds, of aquatic habits, having a very thick skin, short legs, and a large head and muzzle.

It’s well known that the hippopotamus’ name means river-horse (or rather horse of the river). The word, as a matter of course, wound its way into English via Latin; horse from the Greek hippos, river from the Greek potamus.

But considering how little a hippopotamus and a horse have in common, I never understood why this is its name. And I’ve always thought it a poor naming decision, etymologically. That all changed this week.

Because while making my way through the musings of Ernest Weekly, I stumbled over the missing link in a footnote – perspective! It is not the creature itself but how it is viewed that makes sense of its name.

A reader calls my attention to the fact that when the hippopotamus is almost completely submerged, the pointed ears, prominent eyes, and large nostrils are grotesquely suggestive of a horse’s head. This I have verified at the zoo.
~ The Romance of Words (4th ed.)

Thus understanding emerged from the submerged form. Here is a good example.


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