Posted by: ayac | September 30, 2014


Δασύπους (literally “hairy-foot”) was an Ancient Greek word for “hare”, or maybe a particular kind of hare. As a loanword in Latin, dasypus is hardly used except a few times by Pliny in his Natural History, where he apparently uses it to mean “rabbit”.

In the 1570s, Francisco Hernández made a Spanish translation and commentary of Pliny’s Natural History, which is apparently where he picked up Pliny’s idiosyncratic usage of dasypus, and also wrote his own Natural History of New Spain, which became an important source of information on the plants and animals of the New World for European naturalists.

The Natural History of New Spain (quotes from the 1651 edition) lists almost everything under its Nahuatl name with a literal Latin gloss following, even for things that were already known in Europe (e.g. De MAZAME, ſeu Ceruis “Of the mazame, or deer”), or that weren’t even native to any Nahuatl-speaking region (for llama, it has PELON ICHIATL OQVITLI [sic] / Ouis PeruanaPelonichcatl oquichtli, [male] Peruvian sheep”; neither llamas nor sheep are native to where Nahuatl is spoken).

One of the sources Hernández relied on was the General History of the Things of New Spain, though he apparently used a Spanish version rather than the Nahuatl version. In the description of armadillos (Bk. 11, Ch. 3, Par. 4), the Nahuatl side of the Florentine Codex version says this:

¶Aiotvchtli: quauhtlanemj, quauhtla chane: iuhqujn qujtvznequi. Aiotl tvchin. Injc mjtva Aiotochi: vel iuhqujn tvchin itzontecon, nacazvivitztic, nacazpapatlachtic, tentetepontic. Auh injma, injicxi: vel iuhqujn tvchin, tapalcaio: injtapalcaio, iuhqujn aiotl itapalcaio.

Ayotochtli: It lives in the forest; it is a forest dweller. Thus [its name] means “turtle rabbit”. It is called “ayotochin” because [its head] is just like a rabbit’s head: it has pointed, flat ears and a stubby muzzle. And its legs are just like a rabbit[‘s]. It has a shell; its shell is like a turtle’s shell.

Which seems to be an accurate explanation of the etymology of the name ayotochtli/ayotochin. But the Spanish side has something different:

¶Ay vn anjmalejo enesta tierra que se llama aiotochtli; que qujere dezia; conejo como calabaça. Es todo armado de conchas, es del tamaño de vn conejo. Las conchas conque esta armado parecen pedaços de cascos de calabaças muy duros, y rescios.

There is a creature in this land that is called ayotochtli, which means “gourd-like rabbit”. It is entirely armored with shells; it is the size of a rabbit. The shells with which it is armored resemble pieces of shells of gourds, very hard and strong.

This shows confusion between the words ayotl “turtle” and ayohtli “squash”, due to the lack of attention paid to the saltillo (h), which was normally omitted in writing (ayotli). This is probably where Hernández got his Latin gloss for ayotochtli: Daſypus cucurbitinus “gourd-like rabbit”.

Linnaeus included armadillos in the sixth edition (1748) of Systema Naturae under the name Dasypus, which must be a shortening of Hernández’s Dasypus cucurbitinus. This was probably made possible by the fact that dasypus was such an obscure word, and probably wouldn’t have happened if Hernández had glossed ayotochtli as cuniculus cucurbitinus instead.

Dasypus is now the scientific name of a genus of armadillos, and has also been adopted by Esperantists as dazipo. And people generally don’t seem to know why it’s called that. A lot of people think etymology consists simply of identifying Latin or Greek roots: Dasypus comes from Greek δασύς “hairy” and πούς “foot”, so the genus must have been called that because armadillos have hairy feet. For example, here’s what John A. Sealander and Gary A. Heidt say in Arkansas Mammals: Their Natural History, Classification, and Distribution (1990):

Dasypus comes from a combination of two Greek words, dasy, meaning “hairy,” and pus, meaning “foot.” The translation of “hairy foot” does not apply. It has been speculated that Linnaeus may have meant thick-footed or rough-footed.

Similar things can be found in various other books and on the internet. Another widespread claim seems to have originated in The Amazing Armadillo: Geography of a Folk Critter (1984) by Larry L. Smith and Robin W. Doughty:

This strange-looking mammal puzzled Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), who, in 1758, coined Dasypus as its generic name. This term is derived from the Greek word for “hare” or “rabbit,” and reflects that great scholar’s attempt to Latinize the Aztec name for the armadillo, azotochtli [sic], meaning “tortoise or turtle-rabbit.”

This is slightly better informed, in that they know that dasypus is an actual Greek word meaning “hare” and not just a combination of two roots, and have made the connection between the name of the genus and the Nahuatl word. But it attributes the translation to Linnaeus himself, who I doubt knew any Nahuatl, and even if he had, it would have been a very strange translation for a supposedly great scholar to produce. Google won’t let me see who or what they cite for this claim; I’d like to know whether the misspelling of ayotochtli as azotochtli originated with them or with their source. It’s a misspelling that has been faithfully preserved by those even further down the chain from reality, like the website Armadillo Online!:

From Dasypodis, Greek for “turtle-rabbit”; Linnaeus did not like the Aztec name, Azotochtli, and so used a Greek equivalent to name the family.

Greek for “turtle-rabbit”.


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