The exact etymology of the English word “panda” is still unknown yet. But if you follow its original names as clues, such as “bear cat”, “cat bear” or “big cat bear” in English or in Chinese, you could trace loads of interesting records.
The origin of the English term "panda" is uncertain. A rather wild guess – the word doesn't mean anything in any known language!
The word panda appeared no later than 1825 but it referred to the lesser-known red panda. Its official publisher was Frédéric Cuvier, the brother of the famous Georges Cuvier. In the paper he gave the red panda the Latin name Ailurus fulgens and the common name "panda".
This source of the word panda, however, was very controversial. Early literature said that panda was from a Roman goddess in French and was the god of peace and traveler, so the word panda was borrowed into English from French. But no conclusive explanation of the origin of the French word panda has been found.
It’s worth noting that there’s a possibly close guess by OED, saying that panda came from the second element of the Nepali phrase nigalya ponya, namely ponya, which means "eater of bamboo" (or "bamboo-eating animal"). It sounds fairly accurate.
In China, the original name of the giant panda was “cat bear” or “big cat bear”, for the reason that its face is as plump as a cat, but the whole body is like a bear. So some people believed it belongs to the bear family.
In 1939, there was an exhibition of animal specimens at Chongqing Pingming Zoo, of which the “cat bear” attracted the attention of the audience. Its name was written in the international format, labelled Chinese and Latin respectively. However, the Chinese at that time were used to reading from right to left, so the visitors read “cat bear” as “bear cat”. Since then, "bear cat" (熊猫 xióng māo) became a generally recognized Chinese name for panda.
In fact, the Chinese names for the Giant Panda have been many and range from "spotted bear" (hua xiong, in pinyin) to "bamboo bear" (zhu xiong) to "large bear cat" (dà xióng māo) to "bear cat" (xióng māo), though the latter two are linguistically misleading, since they imply a kind of cat with bear-like features. It turns out that in the local language of Taiwan, folk do rearrange this word order, referring to the panda as the "cat bear" (māo xióng), which fits better than the first two names above.
There are a couple of obvious reasons for the reference to a panda’s cat-like appearance: the pupils of the panda's eyes are cat-like vertical slits, and the tiny infant panda (amazing that such a large creature arrives in the world not much longer than a regular hotdog and weighing a mere 150 grams/ 5.25 ounces), spends the first 6-8 weeks with its eyes closed (of course, not only kittens, but also puppies spend their first few days with their eyes closed), and, as well, despite the newborn panda's lack of hair, it resembles a fragile kitten, also with its long tail, which shortens as the infant becomes a toddler, as it were.
In addition, there are still all kinds of arguments about whether pandas are bears, raccoons, cats or their own species. But very significantly, let’s let the zoologists continue to fight for that and we can focus on admiring these adorable creatures.
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