What determines which male/female terms to use for different animal species?

For example:

  • "Bull versus cow" is used for cattle, elephants, and camels
  • "Boar versus sow" is used for pigs, badgers, and bears
  • "Buck versus doe" is used for deer, rabbits, and kangaroos.

I can't see any logical factor that categorises any of these different species. So what determines which gender-specific terms to use for each species?

A somewhat related question, but which doesn't answer my question, is Why are there different ways of indicating gender for animals?

closed as too broad by Drew, Chenmunka, Rory Alsop, anongoodnurse, user66974 Nov 13 '14 at 19:07

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  • 4
    Good find on the related question, but I think it does answer your question: we've inherited words from different languages, different cultures, and different times, and accidents of history have shaped them into the form they have today. In other words, we should not expect there to be a consistent, overarching rationale or logical factor that categorizes such words. Some clusters (e.g. all animal names derived from French) may share some factors, but those will be different from the factors inherited from names in other clusters (e.g. names imported from Scots). – Dan Bron Nov 10 '14 at 22:24
  • @DanBron What do you mean when you say 'Scots'? Do you mean Gaelic? Or do you mean Lowland Scots. If the latter I don't see your point, because that is a hybrid language, like English. Which animal names are you suggesting are 'imported from Scots'? – WS2 Nov 10 '14 at 22:31
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    @Ws2, don't read too much into it, it was a made-up example. The linked question makes specific mention of Old English, Latin, and Flemish, so you can substitute those into my comment if it makes you feel better (PS: literally all languages are hybrid languages, it's just that some are more proactive about it.) – Dan Bron Nov 10 '14 at 22:32

Languages are said to be arbitrary. There is no necessary or natural relationship between the words of a given language and the concepts / objects they represent.


In main-line English, different names exist when the difference is important to us because the animals are being used for different purposes, being actively bred, or have enough sexual dimorphism that we think of the males and females as different. Someone who is raising livestock needs to know how many cows and bulls and steers and heifers and so on are on the farm, not just how many head of cattle.

As for the choice of WHICH words to use -- that was usually a matter of which existing terms seemed most analogous to the English-speakers who first encountered the animals, or derived from terms that were already in use in the area the animals came from. There's no clear rule, it's purely historical.

It's a minor miracle that there are any semi-reliable rules in English...

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