My question is based on my interest in the evolution of the Giraffe's name.

Etymology Online Dictionary puts the following:

Giraffe: long-necked ruminant animal of Africa, 1590s, giraffa(...)The modern form of the English word is attested by c. 1600 and is via French girafe (13c.).

But though the word "Giraffe" dates from at least the late 16th century, as proved above (although I have personally found examples of the word "Giraffe" referring to the animal (not in English though) about a decade prior to 1590) I am really curious as to why Europeans ceased using the name "Camelopord"?

EOD puts it:

Camelopard: an old name for "giraffe," late 14c

The delightful word refers to the European's belief that a "giraffe" was a long-necked creature whose body looked somewhat camel-like and whose signature spots resembled that of a Leopard.

I have read in numerous essays that this name was widely used to refer to the long-necked animal until the late 19th century (correct me if I am mistaken), albeit I have seen in the 16th century the words "Camlopard" and "Giraffe" have been used interchangeably, so undoubtedly, the word "giraffe" might have been in those "pre-zoologists" minds. Yet it is an almost certain point that the word "camelopard" was the preferred and more widely understood name of the two.

  • My questions are: why, and when did Europeans begin favoring the word "giraffe" over the "camelopard"
  • What are other names that the "giraffe" was referred to in English other then Giraffe and Camelopard?
  • And lastly, a kind of self-theory of sorts: what is the origin of the spelling of the word "giraffe" as it is used in English? I ask this, because of the peculiar use of the double "f" and ending with "e" in the word. This sort of reminds me of the archaic spellings of words in Elizabethan and Jacobean England where a word would be spelled sometimes with repeating the last letter once and then adding an "e" to the end. You see this exceptionally in Shakespeare's quartos and earlier folios, but also in almost all other printed texts of the period. The most famous example of this is probably from Julius Caesar, where the line: "Dogs of War" is spelled "Dogges of Warre". So is there any possibility "giraffe" was at one point spelled "giraf" in English and the archaic spelling of adding an "fe" at the end stook? and thus became "giraffe"? -- I know this might seem like a rather far-fetched and foolish theory, but I thought "what's the hurt in asking".

enter image description here

^ A magnificently peculiar, early depiction of a "Giraffe" by Conrad Gessner (circa. 1550s)

Here under lies the Original prologue to the question: (initially edited out), and so moved to nether-regions of question to keep focus on the main idea; But since there was a bit of historical background which I would hope some might appreciate, I decided to keep it down here:

(One of my most cherished hobbies is delighting my eyes with the wonderous wood-cuts from the 16 and 17th century of early interpretations of animals (most famously Dürer's "timeless" Rhinoceros)--Of course, in the 16th century Europe gained a profound intrigue into the exotic and with this intrigue, there was quite the exceptional demand to read and see illustrations of what exotic animals and plants could look like (as inevitably, very seldom would it be that a European would have the pleasure of seeing with their own eyes, a Walrus, or a Giraffe, or a Rhinoceros.) And due to these setbacks to the collective understanding of such animals, most artists and historians could merely interpret what others before them had said animals look like, many times these ancient descriptions being misleading.)

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    @user121863 I changed the question to be directly based on English and not on any other language. Thank you for notifying me. Sep 23, 2020 at 16:48
  • Names are weird. When you ask for someone (or somethings) name, you're basically asking "what sounds do I make with my mouth to attract your attention or so other people know who or what I'm referencing"
    – Ben
    Sep 24, 2020 at 2:34
  • This doesn't answer the OP's question, but I thought it was worth sharing. The Arabic roots of the word giraffe have been mentioned here, but the word is 'ultimately' said by someone to come from Persian zurnāpā: zurnā “flute” + "leg". (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/…)
    – LarsH
    Sep 24, 2020 at 13:47
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    The word ending could just be an accident, or a "gaffe". Sep 24, 2020 at 20:32
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    If you want an early European depiction of a rhinoceros, try Marco Polo's visit to Sumatra "There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick.... The head resembles that of a wild boar, .... 'Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied."
    – Henry
    Sep 25, 2020 at 15:17

3 Answers 3


From the OED, Camelopard was first recorded in

▸ a1398 J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add. 27944) (1975) II. xviii. xx. 1159 Cameleopardus hatte cameleopardalis also... And haþ þe heed of a camele..and spekkes of þe parde. [And has the head of a camel and the spots of the leopard.]

Somewhere between then and 1594 we have early records of "Giraffe":

1594 T. Blundeville Exercises v. ix. f. 259 This beast is called of the Arabians, Gyraffa. 1617 F. Moryson Itinerary i. iii. v. 263 Another beast newly brought out of Affricke..is called..Giraffa by the Italians.

β. c1600 Sanderson in Purchas Pilgrims (1625) ii. 1619 The admirablest and fairest beast that euer I saw, was a Iarraff.

[Although there was obviously some confusion as the animal was so rare in the UK:

1688 R. Holme Acad. Armory ii. 130/2 Beasts..Such as chew the Cud, and are not Horned, as Camelopard Giraffa.]

It seems from the Google Ngram links above, that the name started to change decisively from Camelopard around the end of the 18th century and the move to Giraffe became all but complete around 1824. This was probably a cultural change that followed the scientific advances in which "Camelopard" was seen as a crude and primitive combination of exterior features, whereas "modern people" required something a little more specific, and hence the Arabic.

Thus we have in The Kaleidoscope: or, Literary and scientific mirror, Volume 8 1821 p81

The ROMANS, to whom Julius Caesar was the first who introduced a giraffe, called the animal camelo-pardalis or camelopard. But a multitude of essential differences distinguish it from the camel; and of the leopard, […] it must also be observed that they [the spots] differ in being flat and irregular, instead of being round and ranged en rose. The ancient name of Zerapha, corrupted by us into giraffe, is much more fitting, therefore, that that which the Romans substituted for it.

As far as other names are concerned, there was apparently one:

1605 J. Sylvester tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Deuine Weekes & Wks. i. vi. 194 Th' horned Hirable [1605 marg. alias, Girafle, 1608 marg. Alias, Gyrafa]

But this may be a mistake of the translator, hence the marginal notes.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giraffe#Etymology Its Latin name is Giraffa camelopardalis (1758)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 23, 2020 at 18:06
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    Th' horned Hirable!--How Wonderful! Thank you very much for that. Sep 23, 2020 at 18:22
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    Interesting... the a1398 citation seems to suggest that what we now call a leopard started life as parde and got the lo-/leo- prefix from camelopard.
    – TripeHound
    Sep 24, 2020 at 6:09
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    @TripeHound In ME (and eMod.E) a pard was any big cat other than a lion or tiger - this included the panther, jaguar, leopard, and probably mountain lion (all closely related). "Leo" = "lion", hence Leopard = leo (lion) + pard. (cf ME formica-leon - the antlion).
    – Greybeard
    Sep 24, 2020 at 8:34
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    @Greybeard: Pedantic note on "all closely related": While mountain lions look like jaguars and leopards, they're not closely related at all; mountain lions are from the Felinae family (colloquially "small cats"), while the others are from Pantherinae ("big cats"). "Panther" isn't even a species (it's just a way of referring to black or white variants of jaguars and leopards). Domestic cats are more closely related to mountain lions than either is to jaguars and leopards. Not that anyone alive at the time these words were being invented knew any of this. :-) Sep 26, 2020 at 1:53

In Middle English, camelioun (via Medieval Latin) and (sometimes) gerfaunt and orafle (both from Old French) referred to the giraffe (Middle English Dictionary). Authors with more knowledge of Latin would also know cameleopardalus directly, though this word was usually glossed in context until the sixteenth century (OED). For English audiences, the animal now denoted by giraffe was mainly a creature from bestiaries or travelogues, and not one they would have direct experience with. That changes over the next few centuries.

I'll split this in two. The first part casts giraffe's early history (including, maybe, why we spell it giraffe - thanks, Italy!). The second part delves into when the word became more popular than camelopard.

Giraffe from Italian to English

Giraffe comes into the picture in the late 16th century, in a period when many multilingual lexicons are being produced and new words from Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian are flooding into the language. The giraffe, as a word, is imparted into English through a succession of translations from Romance languages that describe encounters with the wider world. Abraham Hartwell uses it in his translation of The History of the warres between the Turkes and the Persians (1595):

a lyue Giraffle: (which is a beast like a Cammell and a Panther,)

Note the use of the newer term (giraffle, possibly similar to the Italian original) with the description that combines two animals (camel + panther ~ camel + leopard). John Florio defines the Italian version of giraffe only a few years later in his World of Words (1598):

Giraffa → , a beast greater then a leopard, resembling a panther with a long neck. Also a kinde of glasse that they vse to drinke wine in, in Italie.

Again, the panther descriptor sticks: "a panther with a long neck." Side note: Florio gives no cross-reference whatsoever to another word similar in meaning, possibly indicating that Florio thought giraffe was different from camelopardo and thus worth defining on its own:

Camelopardo,a beast begotten of a ca∣mell and a panther.

In 1600 giraffe appears in John Pory's translation of A Geographical History of Africa by Arabic author Leo Africanus:

Of the beast called Giraffa.

THis beast is so sauage and wilde, that it is a very rare matter to see any of them: for they hide themselues among the deserts and woodes, where no other beasts vse to come; and so soone as one of them espieth a man, it flieth foorthwith, though not very swiftly. It is headed like a camell, eared like an oxe, and footed like a *: neither are any taken by hun∣ters, but while they are very yoong.

The British Library describes this book as an important influence on early modern perceptions of Africa. The translator preserves the giraff- spelling. Another famous book on the history of the Turks came out a few years later by Richard Knolles (1603). Writing on his own, rather than translating another document, he uses giraffe:

a liue Giraff•e (which is a beast like a Cammell and a Panther)

He's copying Abraham Hartwell in this section of the book, with slight updates to the spelling. This history was very popular and would be read widely in the next couple of centuries (Britannica cites Samuel Johnson and Lord Byron as fans of Knolles).

So it's likely, based on these early uses, that the spelling giraffe (especially the double-f) comes from early translations from Italian and subsequent copying of those Italian spellings. We can thank Hartwell, Florio, Pory, Knolles, and perhaps others for that spelling.

Whence giraffe over camelopard

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, giraffe and camelopard both appear a lot. In EEBO-TCP (up to 1700), giraf- appears 80 times and camelo- 87 times. (The wildcard searches help find alternate spellings.) In ECCO (1700-1800), giraffe appears 109 times and camelopard appears 135 times.

In the 19th century, something changes. An N-gram from commenter user121863 shows some kind of shift early in the century. This shift is visible in academic texts: JSTOR turns up 28 results for camelopard in the 19th century, and 459 results for giraffe. In particular, many of the results for giraffe represent a naturalist and anatomical bent toward studying the animal, with firsthand accounts and more accurate visual depictions taking precedence. So in the same issue of the Dublin Penny Journal (Feb. 6, 1836), we have an article on ruminating animals that only mentions the giraffe:

The giraffe, again, is confined entirely to Africa.

Then there's an entire article that mentions both the camelopard and giraffe and uses both terms in the article body:

THE CAMELEOPARD, OR GIRAFFE. ... The height of the giraffe is from fifteen to twenty-one feet. ... The cameleopard was seen by Denham and Clapperton in parties of five or six on the borders of Lake Tehad ..."

It's hard to pinpoint a moment when cameleopard gave way to giraffe, but this concession of using them together was less and less common in the period. Many texts by 1836 already use giraffe alone. The shift to giraffe is well underway.

  • Here is a picture of a modern day caraffa that allows the host to grip the bottle, it is also used to decanter wines. Here is an Italian caraffa from 18th century
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 24, 2020 at 8:15
  • Finally! Caraffa is dated from 1554 and is derived from the Arab word garrāfa, which refers to a clay pot/amphora. dizionario.internazionale.it/parola/caraffa
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 24, 2020 at 8:39
  • @Mari I live in Chile, where garrafa is another common name for the bottle parte of a dama Juana, whose grace is in her immense belly rather than her slim neck. I had no idea of it's arabic origins-thanks!
    – Conrado
    Sep 24, 2020 at 10:53
  • @Conrado the same large bottle used to store wine and oil is called a damigiana in Italian. In English it's also known as a demijohn. And now I learnt two new things today!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 24, 2020 at 10:55
  • In English, the "Carafe" is basically a decanter; a bottle or jar with no handles, for holding wine once it has been poured from the bottle. The difference between a decanter and a carafe is that the carafe has no stopper or lid. Sep 24, 2020 at 21:35

I ran a series of searches of the Early English Books Online database to see how frequently various names and spellings of the creature in question were used in unique instances (that is, excluding subsequent editions of certain popular works) in English-language texts (that is, excluding foreign-language texts and dual-language dictionaries that simply define words from one language in the other language) during the period 1475–1700. Here are the results, ordered by date of earliest occurrence, with spelling, number of unique occurrences, and years of occurrence identified for each:

cameloparde: 2 occurrences (1567 and 1609–1610)

cameleoparde: 1 occurrence (1572)

cameleopard: 6 occurrences (1577, 1601, 1671 1695, 1697, and 1699)

camelopardalis: 16 occurrences (1580{?}, 1594, 1598, 1607, 1612, 1613, 1627, 1634, 1652, 1653, 1656, 1670, 1678, 1682, 1686, and 1694)

cameleopardalis: 2 occurrences (1592 and 1634)

gyraffa: 6 occurrences (1594, 1607, 1611, 1652, 1670, and 1675)

giraffle: 1 occurrence (1595)

giraffa: 14 occurrences (1598, 1600, 1607, 1613, 1617, 1630, 1634, 1657, 1668, 1678, 1680, 1682, 1686, and 1688

gyrapha: 1 occurrence (1607)

hirable: 2 occurrences (1611 and 1679)

garaffa: 2 occurrences (1625 and 1693)

iarraff: 1 occurrence (1625)

giraffe: 7 occurrences (1634, 1635, 1660, 1677, 1679, 1687, and 1692)

camelopardalus: 3 occurrences (1634, 1657, and 1693)

camelo-pard: 3 occurrences (1645, 1658, and 1686)

jaraff: 1 occurrence (1657)

girafe: 3 occurrences (1660, 1679, and 1677)

camelopard: 3 occurrences (1668, 1670, and 1688)

camelopardelis: 1 occurrence (1670)

camelo pardalis: 2 occurrences (1675 and 1678)

cameleo pardalis: 1 occurrence (1678)

geraffe: 1 occurrence 1679

gyraffe: 1 occurrence (1679)

camel[-]leopard: 2 occurrences (1686) and 1688

came-leopard: 1692

Altogether, in English-language books in the EEBO database, I count 43 unique occurrences of references to members of the cameleopard family, 38 unique occurrences of members of the giraffe family, and 2 references to the hirable. The earliest mention of a name from the first family of spellings (cameloparde) is from 1567, and the earliest mention of a name from the second family of spellings (gyraffa) is from 1594. Both the cameleopard family of names and the giraffe family of names were still being used in published texts as the seventeenth century drew to a close.

These two points suggest first that the terms came into English (as opposed to the Latin of learned Englishmen) not so very many years apart, and second that the victory in English of giraffe over cameleopard was not swift.

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    "Camelopardalis" is also the name (still used even today) of one of the official constellations, so it may be overrepresented in literature referring to astronomy rather than zoology. Sep 24, 2020 at 17:50
  • @DarrelHoffman: Yes—two or three of the EEBO matches for Camelopardalis (in various spellings) refer to this constellation. Interestingly, one of them—"The Sphere of Marcus Manilius Made an English Poem" (1675) uses Gyraffa as an alternate term for the constellation: "Of those between the North Pole, Perseus and Auriga an Asterism called Camelo Pardalis and Gyraffa."
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 24, 2020 at 18:12

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