A couple of times, I've noticed Japanese people mistakenly use "ram" instead of "lamb". For example

You broil lamb [correct] or mutton with vegetables. There are roughly two ways to have Genghis Khan; either you broil the marinated meat or dip the broiled meat in sauce. The difference between mutton and ram is in stages of growth. The sheep for mutton is two or more years after its birth, and that for ram is less than 12 months after its birth. [emphasis added]

This made me wonder: is the similarity between the two words, apart from the l/r difference, describing the same animal a coincidence?

Etymology online says that ram and lamb are West Germanic and Germanic respectively, while Wiktionary traces lamb back to Proto-Indo-European but merely says that ram comes from Old English.

Is it known whether the two are related? Failing that, is a change from an "l" to "r", or vice versa, unlikely enough to rule out this possibility?

3 Answers 3


Apparently not, at least not in relatively recent times. Ram is ultimately from Latin ‘aries’, while lamb seems to have an entirely Germanic etymology.


Here's the OED's etymology for ram:

Etymology: Cognate with Middle Dutch ram male sheep, (after classical Latin ariēs) battering ram (Dutch ram), Middle Low German ram male sheep, Old High German ram male sheep (Middle High German ram, German Ramm-, now rare and chiefly in compounds), perhaps < the same Germanic base as Old Norse rammr strong (perhaps on account either of the animal's physical strength or of its strong smell), further etymology uncertain, perhaps < the same Indo-European base as Old Russian ramjan″, raměn″ strong. Compare post-classical Latin ramma ram, piledriver (14th cent. in British sources).

In sense 3 after classical Latin ariēs siege engine designed to break down walls, battering ram, spec. use of ariēs male sheep (see Aries n.); compare also Middle Low German ramme battering ram, Old High German ramma battering ram (Middle High German ramme , German Ramme , now also in sense ‘hammer in a pile-driving machine’ (compare sense 4a)).

  • 1
    Which <s>sauce</s> source did you get this from? Oct 17, 2012 at 7:59
  • 3
    The online OED. Some may prefer other sauces for their lamb. Oct 17, 2012 at 7:59
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    I'd like to see details of that Latin derivation--not that I don't trust the OED, but it seems phonetically unlikely. And etymonline, which usually consults (if not downright cribs from) OED, gives an entirely different account. Oct 17, 2012 at 14:35
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    @StoneyB: Answer amended accordingly. Perhaps not entirely conclusive, but good enough to claim a Latin derivation for the present purpose. Remember that the accusative singular of aries is ariem. Oct 17, 2012 at 15:36
  • I take it that 'sense 3' is battering-ram; in light of the cognates cited I would call that a calque or loan translation rather than a derivation. I leave to Germanists the relevance of declined forms. Oct 17, 2012 at 15:49

The reason why Japanese speakers have trouble with ram and lamb is because Japanese does not have two non-nasal resonant phonemes (/r/ and /l/) as English does, but only one, which sometimes sounds like [l] and sometimes like [r] to English ears, but always sounds like the same phoneme to Japanese speakers.

Consequently, any word that requires a distinction between English /r/ and /l/ will cause trouble for Japanese speakers. Ask any Japanese what they think of the English word squirrel /skwərl/ if you are really interested. It's one syllable in English, but Japanese speakers hear 5, of which the last two are identical (Japanese syllables consist of one consonant followed by a vowel; there are no clusters like /skw/).

  • 1
    Studying Japanese makes me forget that not everyone would know about "r" and "l" not being distinct in Japanese. Oct 17, 2012 at 12:15
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    The OED gives /ˈskwɪrəl/, and I think that’s how I pronounce it. Oct 17, 2012 at 12:21
  • I believe Japanese airlines hope their passengers will have a good fright. Oct 17, 2012 at 12:26
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    @BarrieEngland I’ve heard Stephen Fry imitate an American saying squirrel to contrast how he normally says it in RP, and it is definitely quite different: he has two syllables (as, I suspect, do you), while in North America it has just one, rhyming with girl and pearl (amongst others). It honestly never occurred to me that it might have an “alternate” two-syllable pronunciation before I heard Mr Fry do so.
    – tchrist
    Oct 17, 2012 at 12:28
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    /skwɝl/ would make an excellent US English shibboleth. Oct 17, 2012 at 14:24

Apparently, both the Japanese words seem to translate back into English as 'lamb'.



The error in the quoted passage could be due to automatic translation.

  • This doesn't answer the question so much as provide another example of it. Oct 17, 2012 at 14:22
  • My inference was that the error was caused in translation. cf. "The error in the quoted passage could be due to automatic translation."
    – Kris
    Oct 17, 2012 at 14:23

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