Why are there different ways of indicating gender for animals? For instance, by inflexion we get:

lion (male) & lioness (female)

where the female is distinguished from the male. Here the male is also known by the general (have I used this correctly?) term for this type of animal, i.e. lion.

But, in another instance, we have:

duck (female) & drake (male)

where the male is distinguished from the female by a distinct or different word and also from the general term for this type of fowl, i.e. duck.

Then, for kangaroos and rabbits, we have:

buck (male) & doe (female)

where neither are known by the general term, nor is there any inflexion; instead, distinct names are used.

Why do these different ways for indicating gender exist? Why is it that in some cases the male is differentiated from the female and vice-versa. And why in some cases are both female and male known by words so different from the general term used to describe them?

  • 1
    As an Australian, from now on I'll sing "Doe, a kangaroo. A female kangaroo..." :D Feb 16, 2012 at 6:21

3 Answers 3


To take one of your examples, doe is from old English deon, to suck, and was used to describe a female animal of a number of kinds. buck is from old English bucca, a he-goat. The unisex rabbit is from Flemish. So the words buck and doe appear originally to have meant the male and female of any animal, and have presumably become specialised in referring to deer, rabbits, and certain other kinds of animals.

Ram and sheep are both derived from old English, in the case of ram a word meaning fighting sheep. (Ewe is from Latin.) I'd hazard a guess that in old England there were fighting sheep (males) and sheep (all the others, including wethers).

Hope this helps (all this from the Collins English Dictionary, except the suppositions and guesswork).

  • Thanks for shedding some light on the issue. Would you happen to know why the male duck (drake) is differentiated from the female duck (duck) and not the other way around?
    – Sky Red
    Jan 28, 2011 at 18:46
  • @Sky Red, sadly, no. According to Merriam-Webster, duck is about 200 years older than drake, but other than that it's no help. ( merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drake , merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duck?show=0&t=1296240610 ) Jan 28, 2011 at 18:53
  • and at the same time 'deer' meant any wild animal, from the German 'tier'. Hence deer park was just a hunting area.
    – mgb
    Apr 14, 2011 at 2:33

Because they come from a time when people were more intimately involved with animals than they are now. Nowadays most people can't tell the difference between a hen and a rooster, but 500 years ago they sure could. Most of the terms you'll encounter of this nature come either from farming or hunting, which were big parts of the economy of the average village. You won't see this in newly discovered species for the same reason.

  • I'd mostly agree, but doesn't it take a while for male and female forms of an animal to get separate names anyway?
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 28, 2011 at 5:12
  • Interesting answer, but do you have references? Jan 28, 2011 at 8:38
  • 2
    @jae: Sadly, all I can offer is that I remember reading this in an article some years ago while researching a college paper in the library (remember libraries?). The author's point was partially inferential, noting that the terms mainly came from Old English and that England was an agrarian society at that time (as was most of the world), as well as the fact that the more closely involved a people are with a subject, the more vocabulary they acquire to describe its aspects. It would have been important to distinguish, say, a bull from a cow, etc.
    – Robusto
    Jan 28, 2011 at 13:08
  • Thank you for the answer, but I'm not looking for an explanation on why they are differentiated, rather I want to know why it's duck and drake instead of duck and duckess, for instance. Or why buck and doe, instead of rabbit and rabbitess or kangaroo and kangaress(?!)? Thanks.
    – Sky Red
    Jan 28, 2011 at 18:15

It's not one word became two, it's two became one. Other creatures evolved gender-neutral term over time, while these didn't, somewhy. Lion is by the way, almost did: it can be either he-lion or she-lion, it's not a mistake to say "she's a lion" about lioness.

And we still use different words for humans too — “woman” and “man”. In languages other than English, the “woman” word has no “man” inside it, they are absolutely different words.

In old languages, every noun had gender, even non-living things. Many languages still have this, e.g. Italian “home/house” is female (“casa”) and Russian one is male (“дом”). The language structure is such so even synthetic made-up words are perceived either as male or female.

  • Why some creatures evolved gender-neutral terms and others didn't is interesting. It seems like those animals that did are the ones most useful to man, such as farm animals (nod to Robusto). Thanks.
    – Sky Red
    Jan 28, 2011 at 18:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.