How did the aardvark get its name?

We all know the aardvark because its name sits right at the start of the dictionary. The double letter aa is an almost unique occurrence in English (apart from aardvark’s less well known cousin the aardwolf and the biblical name Aaron) so its presence provides a big clue that aardvark is not a native English word.

Aardvarks are burrowing mammals from sub-Saharan Africa that live mostly on ants (they do eat one plant called an aardvark cucumber). They have no close relatives although their habits resemble anteaters and armadillos. Apparently aardvark meat tastes much like pork.

These are all clues as to how the aardvark got its name. The word aardvark is a borrowing from Afrikaans (Afrikaans is a form of old Dutch). It literally means earth pig from aard for earth and vark for pig. In South Africa the bush pig is known as the boschvark. Vark is related to the Old High German farah and the Old English word fearh (which survives in the modern English word farrow for a litter of pigs).

Armadillo coloured engravingWe assume that using the English translation, earthpig, would have caused confusion with the American groundhog (no relation) which is a large burrowing rodent, also known as a woodchuck (which is unrelated to wood or chuck but derived from the Native American Algonquian word wuchak).

And, by the way, armadillo comes from the Spanish word, armadillo, as the diminutive form of armado for armoured, that is, little armoured (from Latin armare meaning to arm).