The Naming of Things: Dolphins

On the origin of “dolphin”

Happy Dolphin Awareness Month! I couldn’t pick just one dolphin name to dive into this month so instead I chose to look at the word we use for almost all of them. Where oh where does the word “dolphin” come from?

To start my search I decided to look at what word other languages use to describe these animals. To my complete surprise there is an uncommon amount of similarity across otherwise vastly different languages:

Arabic – dualifin

Bosnian – dupin

Czech – delfín

Dutch – dolfijn

French – dauphin/dauphine

German – delphin

Greek – delfíni

Russian – del’fin

Spanish – delfín

Photo by Becci

This isn’t to say that every language uses a similar word for “dolphin” (the Japanese word is “Iruka” and the Mandarin word is “Hǎitún”) but I was struck by how many different languages used a word that sounded very similar to describe the same animal. Especially considering that many of these languages do not have the same etymological ancestry.

Once I noticed this pattern I wanted to dig into the origin of the word “dolphin” and as I did I discovered I am far from the first one to notice this similarity. The Dolphin Communication project actually had a whole podcast episode about it back in 2007.

They go into much more eloquent detail than I will here so I encourage you to check it out but what was particularly interesting to note was that the word has changed very little from its best known origin in Ancient Greek “delphis” all the way back in 1,200 BC!

The Ancient Greek “delphis” was related to  the other Ancient Greek word “delphys,” meaning “womb.” As to what dolphins and wombs had in common when people were putting names to things thousands of years ago, there are three main theories:

  1. Dolphins are somewhat the same shape as a womb.
  2. Dolphins are playful (read “brotherly/sisterly” ie: from the same womb) with each other – apparently that was a saying once upon a time
  3. Dolphins HAVE wombs (at least the females do!) and give live birth.
Photo by Whale Watch Western Australia

Whatever you fancy, the word “dolphin” has staying power and hopefully that means dolphins do too! We have over 500 dolphin stories in our library that you can read here, and you can submit your own cetacean encounter of any species here!

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