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And "Hen" (their mother) isn't much looking forward to it either.

Why? I can answer that question myself, it's because they're all turkeys.

  • Tom is an adult male turkey (also often referred to as a 'gobbler')
  • Hen is an adult female turkey
  • Jake is a young male turkey
  • Jenny is a young female turkey

Very often when we decide to name our pets we give them human names, and we may even converse with them as if they understand us and are able to reply. I believe this is called anthropomorphism; "considering animals, objects, etc., as having human qualities". And I can understand how we become attached to our pets, allowing them to live in our homes and they become for all intents and purposes, members of our families. Would it be true to say that in naming the male and female domestic animals (those bred for food, transportation, work etc.) many were personified by giving them names which are normally only given to humans? In order to avoid possible confusion; I am talking about classification e.g.; hen the female chicken, cock/rooster the male, and chick the young; distinct words which are not common first names, whereas tom, jake and jenny are.  

As far as I am aware this does not happen in the Italian language. To provide a few examples;

  • papero e papera = drake/(female) duck
  • asino e asina = jack or jackass/(female donkey) jenny
  • cavallo e giumenta = horse/mare
  • gatto e gatta = tomcat/(female cat) queen
  • gallo e gallina = rooster/hen
  • tacchino e tacchino femmina = (turkey) tom/hen
  • canguro, canguro femmina e cucciolo di canguro1 = buck or jake/(female kangaroo) jill/(young) joey

I know not one instance where a domesticated farm animal in Italy is called by an Italian human name.

1) Is this phenomenon peculiar to English only? Can anyone explain its origins? E.g. why were the adult and young male turkey both given male human names, why is a young female turkey called a jenny?

2) Are there other examples in the animal kingdom where the young and adult animals have been given "human names"? I can only think of two others but they are both adults: Tom an adult male cat and drake an adult male duck (I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I've heard Drake used as a name).

Edit: I've included the terms for male, female and young kangaroos in the original list

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Buck: male deer, Chick: baby chicken, Joey: baby kangaroo, Goose, jenny: female donkey, jill: female ferret. Here's a webpage that has a bunch of examples‌​. – tylerharms Oct 27 '13 at 10:22
Tom for a male cat comes from a children’s book called “The Life and Adventures of a Cat” (1760) featuring a cat named Tom. Perhaps tom was used by analogy for some other male animals. In his comprehensive etym dict, Klein records: "jackass, n. male ass. — Compounded of jack, 'male of animals', and ass." Maybe jake comes from jack and was influenced by drake. I'm just guessing. Jenny also might have something to do with hen. How's that for folk etymology? :-) – Talia Ford Oct 27 '13 at 11:09
Dr. Drake Ramore. – stevanity Oct 27 '13 at 11:35
The question seems to be why did an author choose to name a female turkey Jenny. That is a matter of opinion; you would have to ask the author. – MετάEd Oct 27 '13 at 12:50
@MετάEd, how do you figure that? As I read it, the question is why the English language has such a large number of male/female-specific animals that are seemingly derived from (or at least identical to) given names; nothing to do with any specific turkey or author. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 27 '13 at 18:27
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Here are some additional human given names that are in current general use for certain animals. I don't think that these have been explicitly identified by other answerers/commenters.

Widespread General Use

billy goat [from William]

jackdaw, jackrabbit, jack mackerel, jack salmon, jacksmelt (common name, both sexes) [from John]

jenny wren [from Janet]

john mule, John Dory (common name of the fish, for both sexes) [John]

molly mule [from Mary]

nanny goat [from Anne]

poll parrot [from Mary, according to OED via Word Origins, but not gender-specific in use]

tomtit (common name, both sexes) [from Thomas]

Regional (and Possibly Obsolete) U.S. Use

These names appear as entries in Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (1944) but are probably not in widespread use today:

Bessie cow [from Elizabeth] ("A cow." The entry cites a 1942 article in the Saturday Evening Post.)

biddy (for a hen or young chicken) [from Bridget, in its perhaps unrelated meaning of "hired girl" or "elderly woman"; "biddy" the chicken dates to 1601, and Merriam-Webster's says that the name is "perh[aps] imit[ative]," while "biddy" the working girl dates to circa 1861 and is "dim[inutive] of the name Bridget"]

bubbly-jock [from John] (The entry says, "A turkey gobbler. 1930 central Pennsylvania mountains. Still or recently used. 1934 Chiefly Scottish. Webster's.")

jack [from John] ("A male animal. 1923 northwestern Missouri Not used in mixed company. Male, n., is used. 1934 = male of certain animals. Webster's.")

jessie [from Jesse] ("A 'critter.' 1942 Florida.")

Johnny, Johnnie [from John] ("A male animal. 1934 Local U.S. Webster's.")

Old Ned [from Edward] ("1904–1922 western North Carolina–eastern Tennessee 1936 southwest Missouri–northwest Arkansas 1941 1. Fat pork, bacon. 2. A boar.")

The strangest animal name entry in the American Dialect Dictionary is surely "Old Ned," which in some localities refers to certain delicious remains of the animal in question, though it may also refer to a whole (an presumably live) boar.

False Alarms

Two bird names that don't qualify because they are imitative of the bird's call, rather than being based on human given names:



Two designations that don't make the cut for other reasons:

pollywog [probably comes not from the name Polly but from poll (in the sense of head) and wiglen (to wiggle)]

teddy bear [doesn't apply generally to real bears]

A Note on Polite Avoidance of Certain Animal Names

I was struck by the remark in the American Dialect Dictionary that, in the 1920s in northwestern Missouri, jack was not used to refer to a male animal "in mixed company." It turns out that, across much of the U.S. South and as far north as Nebraska, Kentucky and West Virginia, some rural folk considered various male animal identifications to be vulgar. None of the forbidden nouns would cause much of a stir today: "Bull, boar, stallion & jack are not used in mixed company, although buck (male sheep or goat) & crower (rooster) are." But squeamishness on this point led to such euphemisms as male ("Any male animal kept for breeding purposes"), stock-male (bull), male-brute (bull), male-cow (bull), male-hog (boar), and male-pig (boar), which were in use for at least the first four decades of the twentieth century in some parts of the United States. The only animal designations (by gender) I can think of that prompt similar recourse to polite circumlocutions today are cock and bitch.

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The French word for “fox” is renard, which comes from Renard, the name of the fox in the mediaeval Roman de Renard, a Germanic personal name (modern German Reinhard). So this phenomenon is not unique to English.

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+1 for answering the question straight and to the point – dj18 Mar 13 '14 at 19:19
This is a good answer but it has only partially answered my questions. Could you flesh this one out? – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '14 at 7:55

Joey for a young kangaroo could be after Joseph Banks, who apparently first recorded the species in English.

Tom was a generic 'everyman' name from 14th c on, and if independence were associated as a quality, it would link well to tomcat.

Jack is a traditional story character who exhibits foolish behaviour, which would link to jackass.

On the flip side, Reynard the fox as a proper name evolved etymologically from 'hard to reckon or reason with'.

It would seem that there's a linking pattern with either a person or a quality.

As to why these are part of the English lexicon and not the Italian, I have no idea. What about French, German, Spanish?

While irrelevant in terms of answering the specific question, there's an interesting list of the etymological origin of animal names here.


In French, Baudet is the equivalent of Jackass - the etymology associates this with a human quality of being constantly in a good mood, and that crosses over to a surname. Presumably the link is related to the 'hee-haw' being interpreted as a laugh.

And if you look at the entry here for Jacasser, you'll find that it says 'Proper names of men are often applied to birds'... eg Pierrot: sparrow.

I don't have time to do the same for other languages - the methodology is easy. Use some of the terms on the page given in tylerharms' link in the comment above, punch them into Google translate, find an on-line etymological dictionary and rely on a bit of common sense and luck to lead you to some answers.

The gradual anthropomorphisation of animals is something that interests me - it's clearly traceable visually in the history of illustrations to Aesop's Fables - a sample which spans 2,200 years of the Fox and Stork can be seen here. The transformation sees them go from wild (human and animal worlds very separate) to wild animals juxtaposed on the human world, to 'tamer' animals assimilated to the human world (clothed, civilised). As we hit the so-called 'age of enlightenment', interestingly, the human and animal get closer, while the depiction of the animals becomes more naturalistic, separating them superficially, yet paving the way to bringing them nearer in behaviour and treatment later. The names, as far as I'm aware always stay very fixedly in the animal kingdom. There's a history of the use of fables in cultures of repression. It may be that there's a related link between animal and human names. Happy for someone to prove this right or wrong. It's just a hypothesis at the moment.

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I was wondering if this was a peculiarity of the English language phenomenon, I'd be delighted to hear if other languages give human names to domesticated animals. By the way, who was Joseph Banks? – Mari-Lou A Mar 12 '14 at 22:56
@Mari-LouA I've added a couple of links to clarify the Banks connection. I've also had a brief look at Jack Zipes' foreword to his translation of Rodari's 'Grammar of Fantasy' and noted that he uses vegetable names for human characters (Cipollino - Il Prinicipe Limone), which would be strange in English. 'Mr Potato Head' is well known, but I only know of one 'Mr Potato'. – Leon Conrad Mar 13 '14 at 9:38
Lets hope the downvoter reverses his vote. The links are a huge improvement. Thanks! – Mari-Lou A Mar 13 '14 at 9:44
@Mari-LouA And a couple of more leads for you. – Leon Conrad Mar 13 '14 at 9:55
I don't think it's quite correct to regard animals as being given human names. I'm not disputing the examples given but they are either very generic names (Jack, Tom), or they have gone the other way: from animals to humans. For example, Buck is a relatively common nickname or friendly term in North America in the sense of 'young buck' expressing youthful virility and the name Reynard from fox emphasises the fox's cunning. In the North of England men and women can be familiarly addressed as 'cock' and 'hen' although this usage is old-fashioned. – user24964 Mar 13 '14 at 10:26


The OED has this for tom:

The male of various beasts and birds; perh. first for a male cat: see tom cat n.; cf. also Compounds 2a.

1791 G. Huddesford Salmagundi (1793) 141 Cats..Of titles obsolete, or yet in use, Tom, Tybert, Roger, Rutterkin, or Puss.


Compounds 2a. In names of animals, denoting the male; see also tom cat n.

1772 T. Bridges Burlesque Transl. Homer (rev. ed.) v. 192 And, like Tom puss, o'er pantiles dance.

In all, it's applied to: tom puss, tom-dog, tom-turkey, tom-parrot, tom-bird, tom-chicken, tom-pheasant, tom-swan, tom-rats, tom-rabbits, tom-mice, tom-hedgehogs [etc.].

For the etymology of tom-cat:

In 1760 was published an anonymous work ‘The Life and Adventures of a Cat’, which became very popular. The hero, a male or ‘ram’ cat, bore the name of Tom, and is commonly mentioned as ‘Tom the Cat’, as ‘Tybert the Catte’ is in Caxton's Reynard the Fox. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat (see quot. 1791 at Tom n.1 6); and people said ‘this cat is a Tom’ or a ‘Tom cat’.


For jenny:

Used as a prefix to denote a female animal, as jenny-ass, and esp. in names of birds, as jenny-hooper, jenny-howlet, and sometimes loosely applied without reference to sex.

First quotation:

1600 R. Surflet tr. C. Estienne & J. Liébault Maison Rustique i. xxii. 122 To preuent the danger of owles and iennie whuppers.

The etymology of the general sense:

A female personal name, pet-form or familiar equivalent of Janet (or, by confusion with Jinny or Jeanie, of Jane), and so serving as a feminine of Jack. Hence, like Jack, used as a feminine prefix, and as the name of machines.

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I don't know what a hooper or a howlett is (Am?) but there's little Jenny Wrren in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence – Mynamite Mar 12 '14 at 22:50

Gilbert or Gib-cat

Yet another male cat variant. It's used by Shakespeare in 1 Henry IV to indicate a castrated cat, and stems from the name Gilbert.

More info 1

More Info 2

More Info 3

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Nice links. Thanks. – Leon Conrad Mar 13 '14 at 16:05

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