A raccoon

Language Hat recently had an entry on the Russian name for the raccoon (Procyon lotor), енот, which attracted some comment about the word for ‘raccoon’ in different languages. Although I made a few comments at that thread, it seems interesting to draw information together from the perspective of ‘A Thousand Miles of Moonlight’. Coming up with names for animals that were previously unknown (prior to the settlement of the Americas, raccoons were unknown to Old World cultures) is always an interesting exercise, and the languages falling within the ambit of this blog adopt several different strategies. (Animal photos are all from Wikipedia).

The naming of the raccoon falls into three main categories (although with some overlap), based on expressions meaning ‘wash-bear’, ‘raccoon dog’, and ‘panda’ respectively.


In Chinese (Mandarin) the raccoon is known as huàn-xióng (浣熊), meaning ‘wash bear’. In using this name, Chinese follows an existing international tradition, as a number of languages name the raccoon for ‘its characteristic dousing behavior in conjunction with that language’s term for bear, for example Waschbär in German, orsetto lavatore in Italian’ (Wikipedia) etc., despite the fact that the raccoon isn’t a kind of bear at all.

The Chinese name is mainly interesting for the use of huàn (浣), which is a literary word for ‘wash’ or ‘rinse’. Since 浣 is a rarely encountered character, the name for the raccoon is (according to Wikipedia) often mistakenly read as wǎn-xióng.

In this, as in many other cases, Chinese popular usage refuses to be pinned down by rules or official usage. In the Chinese pet trade the raccoon is apparently known as límāo (狸猫, Trad 狸貓), which is generally understood to refer to the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) — although it would be possible to write an entire thesis about this name and its background. Another time perhaps.

Japanese similarly uses the term arai-guma (アライグマ), meaning ‘washing-bear’. While katakana is now standard for animal names in Japanese, they can also be written in Chinese characters, in which case arai-guma is usually written 洗熊 (arau 洗う = ‘to wash’, kuma 熊 = ‘bear’). However, in time-honoured fashion, the Japanese have also been known to directly borrow the Chinese written form (浣熊) to write arai-guma, giving rise to another of those quirky character usages that the Japanese so delight in. (For more examples of this kind of thing, see the use of Chinese characters to write Japanese bird names).


Raccoon dog

A raccoon dog

Korean names the raccoon after the locally occurring raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), a superficially similar but unrelated species of animal. The Koreans call the raccoon migugneoguri (미국너구리) ‘American raccoon-dog’ or amerikaneoguri (아메리카너구리) ‘American raccoon-dog’. The words migug (미국) and amerika (아메리카) are both terms for America (more specifically the United States); neoguri (너구리) is the name of the raccoon dog.

Besides this name, the Koreans have also borrowed the Chinese name 浣熊, read wanung (완웅) in Korean, but this appears to be quite uncommon. Wikipedia also gives gaegom (개곰), probably ‘dog-bear’, as a literary name, but this name is rare outside of the Wikipedia entry itself.

Elbenkh in Mongolian script

Элбэнх in Mongolian script

The Mongolian name for the raccoon is elbenkh (элбэнх), occasionally seen as ilbenkh (илбэнх). As in Korean, this is traditionally the name of the native raccoon dog, an animal found in some parts of Mongolia. This use of an indigenous name for an exotic animal leads to issues of differentiation which don’t appear to have been satisfactorily resolved. Reference books on native species call the raccoon dog nokhoi elbenkh (нохой элбэнх) ‘dog elbenkh’, with an alternative being zagal elbinkh (загал элбинх) ‘zagal elbenkh’, where zagal (загал) refers to one of those enigmatic Mongolian livestock colours, apparently a kind of white colour with brown on the face.

Needless to say, even reference books easily slip into unmodified elbenkh (элбэнх) when discussing the raccoon dog. One Mongolian-Chinese dictionary manages to reverse usage, giving the name elbenkh (элбэнх) to the raccoon dog, and nokhoi elbenkh (нохой элбэнх) ‘dog elbenkh‘ to the raccoon.


Mongolian script for ukhialch maluur otog

Ухиалч малуур өтөг in Mongolian script

Domestic Chinese-Mongolian dictionaries give a different name for the raccoon: ukhialch maluur ötög (ухиалч малуур өтөг), literally ‘washing wild-cat bear’, or more accurately ‘washing panda’. This is clearly an Inner Mongolian usage, not current in the country of Mongolia.

Ukhialch (Ухиалч) is based on the Mongolian word for ‘ablution’, plus the suffix ch. Since the normal Mongolian word for ‘to wash’ is ugaakh (угаах), the use of the less common term is reminiscent of the Chinese name. The second part, literally ‘wild-cat bear’, is the Inner Mongolian name for the panda. Both maluur (малуур) and ötög (өтөг) bear some explanation.

Maluur (малуур) is an alternative word for manuul (мануул), which is the Mongolian name of a wild feline known in English as the Pallas’ cat or manul (Felis manul). However, the word maluur (малуур) is listed in Inner Mongolian dictionaries as meaning ‘wild cat’, specifically ‘leopard cat‘. While not listed in dictionaries in Mongolia, the word is found in Buryat dictionaries as meaning manul (Buryat being the variety of Mongolian that has been standardised as a separate language in Russia).


A manul or Pallas' cat

Ötög (өтөг) is an older Mongolian word for ‘bear’ which has largely been supplanted by baavgai (баавгай) in the modern language (baabgai баабгай in Buryat). The fact that maluur ötög (малуур өтөг) contains the old word for ‘bear’ suggests that it is a relatively old name for the panda.

The name maluur ötög (малуур өтөг) ‘wild-cat bear’ is probably modelled on the Chinese word māoxióng (猫熊 Trad 貓熊) ‘cat bear’, often said to be the ‘correct’ name of the panda and still the normal name in Taiwan. In China, the name is normally found in reverse form as xióngmāo (熊猫 Trad 熊貓) ‘bear cat’. Incidentally, the panda is also called maluur baavgai (малуур баавгай), similarly meaning ‘wild-cat bear’, in Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia itself, the panda is known as khulsni baavgai (хулсны баавгай) ‘reed bear’, or more strictly ‘bamboo bear’ since khuls (хулс) includes bamboo.

Mongolian is not the only language to class the raccoon as a kind of panda. Vietnamese calls the raccoon gấu trúc Mỹ ‘American bamboo bear’ or gấu trúc Bắc Mỹ ‘North American bamboo bear’. Since gấu trúc is one Vietnamese name for the panda, this identifies the raccoon as the ‘American panda’. The name gấu mèo Mỹ ‘American cat bear’ is also found, using the other Vietnamese name for the panda, gấu mèo ‘cat bear’.

giant panda

A giant panda

The naming of the raccoon after the panda is at first glance quite peculiar. What could have motivated anyone to compare the raccoon to a panda?

This is complicated by the fact that ‘panda’ refers to two different animals. While it usually tends to be identified with the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), there is another very different-looking panda: the lesser panda (Ailurus fulgens, aka the red panda). Historically, the name ‘panda’ in English was first applied to the lesser panda and only later extended to the giant panda, whose fame has now totally eclipsed that of the smaller animal.

Lesser panda

A lesser panda or red panda

As in English, most languages use the same word to cover the giant panda and the lesser panda, including Vietnamese and (Inner) Mongolian. However, the direction of naming was not necessarily the same, i.e., the giant panda could have been named first, and the lesser panda then named after the giant panda. This appears to be true of Chinese and, judging from the Vietnamese name (especially gấu mèo ‘cat bear’ from Chinese), is possibly also true of Vietnamese.

Given the raccoon’s resemblance to the tree-climbing lesser panda, it is tempting to speculate that the lesser panda, rather than the lumbering giant panda, was the source of the Vietnamese and the Inner Mongolian names. This certainly has an element of plausibility, but presupposes that the lesser panda was the more familiar form of panda to the people of these countries, at least at the time the raccoon was named. Unfortunately, neither type of panda is found in Vietnam or Mongolia, which doesn’t support the idea that the raccoon was spontaneously called a panda because it looked like one.

A more likely reason for treating the raccoon as a panda lies in taxonomy. The taxonomy of both the pandas has been the subject of interminable debate, with conflicting arguments that the giant panda belongs with the raccoons, with the bears, or in a separate group of its own (including arguments that the two types of panda themselves are not closely related). It is thus possible that the raccoon was dubbed a kind of panda by scientists, not by ordinary folk, at a time when the raccoon-affiliation theory was the dominant theory.

However, it would require some in-depth research into primary sources of the time to find out definitively how the raccoons got the name of ‘panda’.

Endnote (or ‘egg-on-face’): Since I first did this entry I’ve been forced by further discoveries to make two embarrassing changes. The first error was pure carelessness: zagal (загал) does not mean ‘wild’ as I hastily assumed (based on some vague memory). Figuring out what it does mean is another story. As the colour of a horse it appears to refer to white, although with brown on the face. A Chinese translation is 绣脖子马 xiù bózi mǎ ‘embroidered neck horse’, but no explanation of this name is to be found anywhere. Used with a colour name it appears to refer to horses with a stripe stretching forward from the shoulders. In other contexts it means having white spots. The reason for applying it to the raccoon-dog remains a mystery to me.

The other, more weighty discovery is that maluur ötög (малуур өтөг) means ‘panda’. This is another of those many cases where different words are used by the Mongolians of Mongolia and the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia. The Vietnamese usage thus no longer stands out as an anomaly.

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5 Responses to Raccoons

  1. Very interesting. I love these cross-linguistic labyrinths of fauna&flora words.

    For more confusion, English translations often call tanuki “badgers” or “racoons” and only rarely “racoon-dog” (and I think the latter is what is typically intended, with the caveats you noted in the other thread). So Mustelidæ, Procyon lotor and Nyctereutes procyonoides all become confused unless one takes the time to investigate.

    Pointless trivia—famous videogame character Mario could acquire a tanuki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3; what’s interesting is that “tanuki” was not translated, but simply got an anglicized spelling as “Tanooki”. What was in the original a “tail Mario” was translated as “racoon”, which makes sense given its flat, stripped tail; so that Super Mario 3 from 1988 actually distinguished racoons from tanuki.

    also, we need to take care to distinguish raccoon dogs with a dogs for the hunting of racoons!

  2. khanbaliqist says:

    Leonard, I haven’t got up the courage to tackle the tanuki head on just yet. I think it’s rather complex historically and there are lots of question marks. There is a great page on tanuki at Tanuki in Japanese Artwork.

  3. That’s a good page, I’ll take the time to read it. Undoubtedly popular names, folklore, and linguistic variation (geographical and historical) all present significant complications to biological vocabulary. On the folklore side, Blacker’s The Catalpa Bow is disappointly sparse on tanuki; but she advances a thesis from Yanagita Kunio that a variety of dogs and foxes are all fundamentally the same folkloric kitsune figurel; they’re invariably described as “long, thin, with reddish-brown fur, short legs and sharp claws”, and they can possess people, become invisible, and make contracts with evil people (fox-users, kitsunedzukai). The examples given are, as a dog: inugami in Shikoku and Chūgoku; izuna in Tōhoku, Aomori, Iwate; gedō in Hiroshima; and, as a fox, ninko 人狐 in Izumo; yako in Kyūshū; osaki in the Kantō area; and kuda in Shizuoka, Nagano, Yamanashi.

  4. Carl says:

    The Korean is mistranscribed. 미국너구리 is “migugneoguli” not “migungneoguri”.