Animal Adjectives

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Most writers are familiar with the animal adjectives canine and feline used to refer to dogs and cats, but they may not be aware of numerous others they could use in writing about both animals and people.

Here are some examples that use leonine, taurine, bovine, and feline:

Concluding with remarks about Toscanini’s technique, Saminsky again contrasted his “leonine manner” with Nikisch’s “carefully restrained movements…” –Toscanini in Britain, Christopher Dyment, p. 18.

Porta … asserts, that such men resemble bulls in anger, as is expressed by the wide nostrils; and, in the strength expressed by the dense neck. I have… seen many stout athletic men with taurine aspects, and have always observed such to have taurine dispositions likewise. –“History of Physiognomy,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 69, Part 1, 1799.

He was a plump little guy with thinning gray hair over a pink scalp, big brown bovine eyes and dewlaps hanging on either side of his chin. —Peril is My Pay, Stephen Marlowe.

Although it was rare for Bat to be clearly depicted in painting or sculpture, some notable artifacts […] include depictions of the goddess in bovine form. –”Bat (goddess),” Wikipedia.

eartha kitt: the feline femme fatale –headline, Marie Claire, online magazine. (The original headline is all in lowercase.)

Here’s a list of animals with their corresponding adjectives.

ant: formicine
ass: asinine
bear: ursine
bird: avian
bull: taurine
crow: corvine
dog: canine
dove: columbine
elephant: elephantine
fish: piscine
fox: vulpine
hornet/wasp: vespine
horse: equine
lion: leonine
peacock: pavonine
pig: porcine
seal: phocine
serpent: serpentine
sheep: ovine
swan: cygnine
tiger: tigrine
tortoise: testudine
wolf: lupine
viper: viperine

In addition to using animal adjectives literally and figuratively to describe animals and people, writers can build character names from them. For example, one of the characters in the novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz is a huge, bearlike servant named Ursus. A character called Corvin could have something to do with death; Pavonna could suggest beauty and pride, and Vespicia could be a sharp-tongued woman.

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15 thoughts on “Animal Adjectives”

  1. When I was a schoolboy and younger, I was a firstborn child, and I had but one cousin older than me, too. So, I wasn’t around older children very much.
    I had a neighbor boy, Marty, who was my age and a close friend. Marty had and older brother and an older sister, and no younger siblings. One time when Marty was angry at his brother and sister, he yelled at them “GO WITH THE PACHYDERMS TO THE ZOO !”
    (My friend was known for having a sharp tongue at times.)

    Of course, I was mystified because I didn’t even know what a pachyderm was. It was some years later that I learned that a pachyderm is from the group of animals that includes elephants, rhinos, hippopotami, and maybe giraffes, camels, bison, and zebras, too. Except for the elephant, their characteristics in common include being big and dumb!

    So, what is the appropriate adjective? pachydermish? pachydermlike?

  2. Thanks, Maeve, for the great list, definitely has words I have never heard of (e.g. for tortoise, seal, peacock). Nice vocab lesson although many will not be useful for Scrabble LOL
    I’m sure there are more where these came from, but I will just add bee/apian. TGIF 🙂

  3. I’ll add hircine– like a goat. This one comes in very handy quite a bit, actually. I once wrote an article describing a certain politician’s hircine behavior and it at least got me some style points. Didn’t bother him a tad.

  4. @DAW: I would say the appropriate adjective would be found in Maeve’s list, elephantine. If you don’t like that one, use one of the ones you made up…nobody will stop you. I can also suggest pachydermal.
    @venqax: Exactly how many style points are these things worth and can I cash in points for, let’s say, a nice X3? Inquiring minds want to know 😉

  5. Loved this post, my husband and I had only recently discussed just such adjectives. Would add ‘simian’ (monkey-like).

  6. @bluebird: 3. 3 points. And if it’s like my airline rewards system, you’d need approximately 6000 points to get a “free” ticket somewhere. One-way.

    @DAW: bluebird is right. And pachyderm is an obsolete classification nowdays, anyway. Did you know it means, “thick skinned”? I thought the word referred to one of those nicotine stickers to help quit smoking but it turns out that’s a dermapatchy. Language is dang tricky!

  7. @venqax: Oh well. Maybe if I add my style points, the airline miles from every trip I have ever taken, all the customer appreciation points from every restaurant in which I’ve ever eaten and every website from which I’ve ever made a purchase, AND throw in my first-born child…I might have enough for the doors off the X3. Keep on truckin’…

  8. This is a wonderful list. Many of these adjectives I had never heard, so I opened Dictionary.com to hear pronunciation. “Cygnine” yielded no results (and my word processor just stuck a red “misspelling” line under it). Curious, I went to the OED site and searched it in British and American. No results. I think there are more than one that might produce similar results.
    The adjectives all look good to me, and follow a common-sense pattern. Are the words just so rarely used (except in fiction) that nobody has noticed them? Couldn’t believe that word was not in OED. They are the top as far as I’m concerned.

  9. Thank you, the bluebird11: “pachydermal” is the right adjective.
    I also thought of “pachydermesque”, but I didn’t like that one.
    So, “pachydermal” definitely refers to rhinos, elephants, hippopotami, and maybe a few other species such as giraffes, okapis, musk oxen, Cape buffalo, and wildebeests.
    Yes, I did know that “pachyderm” refers to the thickness of the skin.
    Also, I think that the BALD declaration that the word “pachyderm” is obsolete is simply argumentative. Venqax, where do you get that from? For example, if a word were only found in the writings of Kipling and Hemingway, that would not make it obsolete. D.A.W.

  10. To thebluebird11. Thank you, but the word “elephantine” refers to being bulky, strong, and also smart.
    We need a word that refers to bulky, strong, and stupid, and I think that you hit it with “pachydermal”, with my “pachydermish” coming in second place.

  11. DAW: I didn’t say the word pachyderm was obsolete. I said the classification pachyderm is obsolete. That’s kind of what I said when I said,

    “…pachyderm is an obsolete classification…”

    Maybe you missed that.

  12. If “pachyderm is an obsolete classification”, then don’t even use the word? The contrapositive of this is:
    Since the word is still in use, the the classification is not obsolete.

    When my friend said “Go with the pachyderms to the zoo,” he knew what he was talking about, and I learned what it means, too.

  13. Since the word is still in use, the the classification is not obsolete.

    But that is simply false. Just having a word for something doesn’t mean it is still relevant, extant, or useful in any way. The word “pachydermal” is fine. I was just pointing out the possibly unproductive nature of searching for a word that describes what is an obsolete concept (zoologically) anyway.

    Anyway, your friend really said, “Go with the pachyderms to the zoo,”? That just seems like such a very odd thing to say. Do pachyderms “go” to the zoo? Aren’t they already at the zoo? Go LIVE with the pachyderms AT the zoo, maybe? Your friend might deserve a DWT post all for himself.

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